Ukraine and Russia have made significant progress on a tentative 15-point peace plan including a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal if Kyiv declares neutrality and accepts limits on its armed forces, according to three people involved in the talks.
The proposed deal, which Ukrainian and Russian negotiators discussed in full for the first time on Monday, would involve Kyiv renouncing its ambitions to join Nato and promising not to host foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey, the people said.
The nature of western guarantees for Ukrainian security — and their acceptability to Moscow — could yet prove to be a big obstacle to any deal, as could the status of Ukrainian territories seized by Russia and its proxies in 2014. A 1994 agreement underpinning Ukrainian security failed to prevent Russian aggression against its neighbour.
Although Moscow and Kyiv both said that they had made progress on the terms of a deal, Ukrainian officials remain sceptical Russian president Vladimir Putin is fully committed to peace and worry that Moscow could be buying time to regroup its forces and resume its offensive. Putin showed no sign of compromise on Wednesday, vowing Moscow would achieve all of its war aims in Ukraine.
“We will never allow Ukraine to become a stronghold of aggressive actions against our country,” he said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, told the Financial Times that any deal would involve “the troops of the Russian Federation in any case leaving the territory of Ukraine” captured since the invasion began on February 24 — namely southern regions along the Azov and Black seas, as well as territory to the east and north of Kyiv.
Ukraine would maintain its armed forces but would be obliged to stay outside military alliances such as Nato and refrain from hosting foreign military bases on its territory.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that neutrality for Ukraine based on the status of Austria or Sweden was a possibility.
“This option is really being discussed now, and is one that can be considered neutral,” said Peskov.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that “absolutely specific wordings” were “close to being agreed” in the negotiations.
Despite the progress in peace talks, Ukrainian cities came under heavy shelling for a third consecutive night while Kyiv said it was launching a counter-offensive against Russian invaders.
In a virtual address to members of Congress on Wednesday, Zelensky pleaded for the US to enforce a no-fly zone or provide fighter jets or other means to fend off Russia’s attack on his country, and impose harsher economic sanctions on Moscow.
In a dramatic appeal, Zelensky said Ukraine needed America’s support after Russia had launched a “brutal offensive against our values”. He called on Americans to remember the attacks on Pearl Harbor and of September 2001 and showed a searing video of the missile attacks and shelling destroying Ukrainian cities.
Though Ukraine’s constitution commits it to seek membership of Nato, Zelensky and his aides have increasingly played down Ukraine’s chances of joining the transatlantic military alliance, a prospect that Russia sees as a provocation.
“There is no effective system of European security now, which would be moderated by Nato. As soon as a serious war began in Europe, Nato quickly stepped aside,” Podolyak said.
“We propose a ‘Ukrainian model of security guarantees’, which implies the immediate and legally verified participation of a number of guarantor countries in the conflict on the side of Ukraine, if someone again encroaches on its territorial integrity,” he added.
Ukraine, Podolyak added, would as part of any deal “definitely retain its own army”. He also played down the significance of a ban on foreign bases in Ukraine, saying that was already precluded by Ukrainian law.
Two of the people said the putative deal also included provisions on enshrining rights for the Russian language in Ukraine, where it is widely spoken though Ukrainian is the only official language. Russia has framed its invasion as an attempt to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from what it claims is “genocide” by “neo-Nazis”.
Podolyak said “humanitarian issues, including language issues, are discussed only through the prism of Ukraine’s exclusive interests”.
The biggest sticking point remains Russia’s demand that Ukraine recognise its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist statelets in the eastern Donbas border region.
Ukraine has so far refused but was willing to compartmentalise the issue, Podolyak said.
“Disputed and conflict territories [are] in a separate case. So far, we are talking about a guaranteed withdrawal from the territories that have been occupied since the start of the military operation on February 24,” when Russia’s invasion began, he said.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose nation has sought to play a role as a mediator in the conflict, echoed hopes that negotiations could bear fruit after a meeting with Lavrov.
“I’m not going to go into the details on behalf of the two countries but I know that there are convergences between them,” Cavusoglu said.
However, UK defence minister Ben Wallace expressed scepticism about Russia’s commitment to diplomacy.
“There is a massive information campaign going on in this conflict, this war, and certainly when it comes to Russia you need to judge them on their actions and not on their numerous words.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara and Henry Foy in Brussels