Russia has announced it will “drastically reduce” military combat operations in two key areas of Ukraine “to boost mutual trust” in peace talks.
The decision to scale back operations around the capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv is the first sign of tangible progress in talks since Russia invaded on 24 February.
But the US has reacted with scepticism.
Russia had already refocused its military campaign on “liberating” Ukraine’s eastern regions.
It has suffered a series of setbacks to the north-west of the capital, Kyiv, and is also seeking to capture a land corridor along the south coast, from Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, to the Russian border.
Officials in Washington said they had already seen the Russians draw away from Kyiv, but they were still pounding the capital with air strikes and the US had little confidence that it marked any significant shift or meaningful retreat.
The US had not seen “signs of real seriousness” from Russia in pursuing peace talks, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pointed to the continued “brutalisation” of Ukraine’s people.
During the talks in the Turkish city of Istanbul, Ukraine proposed to become a neutral state in exchange for security guarantees. A key aim of Russia’s invasion was to stop Ukraine joining the Nato alliance and Russian officials said the talks had moved to a practical stage.
Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin, who was in Istanbul, told Russian TV that as “Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status and security guarantees” had progressed, the defence ministry had taken the decision to cut its operations dramatically in the two areas to “create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and for the signing of the aforementioned agreement”.
Ukrainian negotiator Oleksandr Chaly told reporters that its offer of neutrality was a chance to “restore the territorial integrity and security of Ukraine through diplomatic and political means”. Ukraine’s aim was to “fix its status as a de facto non-bloc and non-nuclear state in the form of permanent neutrality”.
Russian forces have encircled Chernihiv, where officials say up to 400 people have been killed and some 130,000 residents are without heating, electricity or water supplies.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said that Russia had twisted the knife in Ukraine and that “we must judge Putin’s regime by their actions not their words”.
Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said talks had been “meaningful” and Ukraine’s proposals on neutrality would be put to President Vladimir Putin, holding out the possibility of a summit involving Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. However, he made clear that before that could happen a treaty would have to be drafted and approved by negotiators, and then signed by foreign ministers.
This has quickly become the most significant diplomatic moment since the invasion begin.
Russia’s statement that it will “drastically reduce” combat operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv shows there is momentum to these discussions. It will now be watched closely to see what materialises on the ground.
And Ukraine’s delegation spelt out in the clearest way yet how they want security guarantees from the West in exchange for declarations of a neutral status – a key Russian demand.
The war continues and there is very little trust between the countries, but this feels like the most important breakthrough moment yet from these discussions.
“This is not a ceasefire but this is our aspiration, gradually to reach a de-escalation of the conflict at least on these fronts,” Mr Medinsky told Russian state news agency Tass.
Launching the invasion, Mr Putin had described Nato as a threat that was becoming more dangerous to Russia by the year. However, there was no mention in the talks of Mr Putin’s regular demands that Ukraine be demilitarised or that it be “de-Nazified”, an allegation that has been widely ridiculed as Russian propaganda.
Ukraine’s negotiators in Istanbul handed the Russians detailed proposals covering neutrality and other core issues in the conflict:
- Ukraine would become a “non-bloc and non-nuclear” state, with no foreign military bases or contingents on its territory
- This would have strict, legally binding guarantees from countries including the UK, China, the USA, Turkey, France, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel which would agree to protect a neutral Ukraine in the event of attack
- Ukraine would not enter military-political alliances and any international exercises would require consent of guarantor states
- The future status of Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, would be decided by 15 years of consultations
- The future of the eastern areas held by Russian-backed separatists would be discussed by the two presidents.
Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said this framework would enable to ceasefire to be agreed without Crimea and the eastern regions being settled.
The proposals would also enable Ukraine to join the European Union, while barring it from becoming part of Nato’s defensive military alliance.