Russia and Ukraine hope for breakthrough in peace talks

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  • “Close to an agreement” says Lavrov
  • Russia outlines status for Ukraine similar to Austria and Sweden
  • Zelenskiy calls for help in speech to US Congress
  • kyiv demands ceasefire, withdrawal and security guarantees

KYIV/LVIV, Ukraine, March 16 (Reuters) – Fresh talks over a compromise between Moscow and Kyiv on Ukraine’s status outside NATO on Wednesday raised hopes of a potential breakthrough after three weeks of war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the negotiations were becoming “more realistic”, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the proposals being discussed were “in my opinion close to an agreement”.

The Kremlin said the parties were discussing a status for Ukraine similar to that of Austria or Sweden, two members of the European Union that are not part of the NATO military alliance. Ukraine’s chief negotiator said kyiv still demanded a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and binding international security guarantees to protect Ukraine in the future.

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Although the war continues with Ukrainian civilians trapped in towns under Russian bombardment, signs of compromise have sent relief to global financial markets. Shares in Germany – Russia’s biggest energy market – rose 3.4%.

In a speech to the US Congress that drew a long standing ovation, Zelenskiy in an unshaven military green T-shirt called for tougher sanctions on Russia and more weapons to help his country fight “for the values of Europe and the world”.

Speaking via video link mostly in Ukrainian but shutting down in English, he invoked Pearl Harbor and quoted Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech to call for a no-fly zone over of Ukraine, although he acknowledged that Washington had ruled him out. .

“In the darkest times for our country, for all of Europe, I call on you to do more,” he said. Lawmakers were thrilled when he released video clips showing dead and injured children and buildings destroyed by bombs.

Three weeks into the invasion, Russian troops were stopped at the gates of kyiv, having suffered heavy casualties and failed to capture any of Ukraine’s biggest cities in a war that Moscow expected to win within days.

The talks were due to take place on Wednesday via video link for a third straight day, the first time they have lasted more than one day.

“Meetings are continuing and, I have been informed, the positions in the negotiations already look more realistic,” Zelenskiy said in a video address overnight.

Later Wednesday, he said that Ukrainians must fight to “defend our state, our life, our Ukrainian life”, but he also emphasized negotiations for “a just but fair peace for Ukraine, real security guarantees that will work”.

CHANGES IN UKRAINE

In what was seen as a major shift, Zelenskiy said on Tuesday that Ukraine could agree to international security guarantees that would fall short of its long-standing goal of joining NATO.

Keeping Ukraine out of the Western military alliance was one of Russia’s main demands in the months leading up to the launch of what it calls a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor.

“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed with, of course, security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Wednesday. “There are absolutely specific formulations that I believe are close to agreement.”

Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator, said on state television: “Ukraine offers an Austrian or Swedish version of a demilitarized neutral state, but at the same time a state with its own army and its own Marine”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the idea “could really be seen as a compromise”.

Austria and Sweden, the largest of the six EU members outside NATO, both have small armies that cooperate with the alliance.

Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said safeguards were being discussed to provide “a rigid agreement with a number of guarantor states committing to clear legal obligations to actively prevent attacks”. against Ukraine.

He also said kyiv was seeking direct talks between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow said they could meet, but only to finalize an agreement already reached.

“Our position in the negotiations is quite specific – legally verified security guarantees; ceasefire; withdrawal of Russian troops. This is only possible with direct dialogue between the leaders of Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Russia,” Podolyak tweeted.

TO HOPE

While Russia has long opposed Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, kyiv and its allies have said Moscow’s real goal is to overthrow Ukraine’s elected pro-Western leadership, which has been thwarted by the fierce resistance of Ukraine on the battlefield.

Podlolyak tweeted ahead of Wednesday’s talks that Ukraine’s military counteroffensives had “radically changed the disposition of the parties.”

Britain said Russian forces were trapped on the roads and struggling to cope with Ukrainian terrain. “The tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces skillfully exploited Russia’s lack of maneuver, frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy casualties on the invading forces,” he said in an intelligence update.

THREE MILLION REFUGEES

Europe’s biggest invasion since World War II has destroyed some Ukrainian cities and sent more than 3 million refugees fleeing abroad.

Streets in the capital kyiv were largely empty on Wednesday after authorities imposed an overnight curfew. Several buildings in a residential area were badly damaged after what appeared to be a Russian missile was shot down in the early hours of Wednesday, residents and rescue workers said.

There was no immediate word on the casualties as a rescue team searched for signs of life among the rubble. The surrounding streets were covered in broken glass and what appeared to be a motor from the missile lay twisted on the side of the road.

Still, the Ukrainian forces withstood an onslaught from a much larger army. Zelenskiy said Ukrainian troops killed a fourth Russian major general in the latest fighting. Reuters was unable to immediately verify this.

Ukraine said around 20,000 people escaped from the besieged port of Mariupol in cars, but hundreds of thousands remained trapped in the shelling without heat, electricity or water.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said it was unclear if the corridor to the city would open on Wednesday. She said 400 staff and patients were being held hostage at a hospital Russian forces captured in Mariupol on Tuesday.

Russia was due to pay $117 million in interest on the dollar-denominated sovereign bonds, but could be forced to pay in rubles instead, which would amount to its first default on foreign debt since the Bolshevik Revolution. Moscow said it had the money and Washington would be to blame if it couldn’t pay. Read more

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Reports from Reuters offices; Written by Michael Perry and Peter Graff, editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Alex Richardson, Philippa Fletcher and Tomasz Janowski

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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