Russian foreign minister says status comparable to Sweden or Austria being ‘seriously discussed’
https://www.theguardian.com-Sergei Lavrov suggested in a media interview that talks with Kyiv were making ground despite the continued bloodshed. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty Images
A deal with Kyiv on “neutral status” for Ukraine as part of a peace agreement could be close, Russia’s foreign minister has said, as Ukrainian forces launched a wave of counterattacks against Russian forces.
Sergei Lavrov suggested in a media interview that talks with Kyiv were making ground despite the continued bloodshed, echoing cautiously optimistic comments overnight from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“The negotiations are not easy for obvious reasons,” Lavrov told RBC news. “But nevertheless, there is some hope of reaching a compromise.
“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed seriously along, of course, with security guarantees. This is what is now being discussed at the talks. There are absolutely specific wordings and in my view, the sides are close to agreeing on them.”
In a video address in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Zelenskiy had also said he believed there was possible room for compromise.
“The meetings continue and, I am informed, the positions during the negotiations already sound more realistic. But time is still needed for the decisions to be in the interests of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said. “Efforts are still needed, patience is needed. Any war ends with an agreement.”
On Tuesday, Zelenskiy had appeared to offer the Kremlin an olive branch by saying that Ukraine would not be joining Nato.
Moscow’s lead negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said his delegation in the talks with representatives from Kyiv was seeking for Ukraine to assume a status comparable to Sweden or Austria, two EU member states that are not members of the Nato military alliance.
The proposal was also confirmed by the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday morning.
Medinsky told reporters on Wednesday that talks were “slow and difficult” but claimed that the Kremlin wanted peace “as soon as possible”.
He added that other issues were being discussed, including the status of the Crimean peninsula, annexed illegally by Russia in 2014, as well as the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, who is directly involved in the talks with Medinsky, responded by saying that “the words about the Swedish or Austrian model of neutrality” failed to reflect the need for Ukraine to have guarantees over its security.
He said: “Ukraine is now in a state of direct war with Russia. Therefore, the model can only be Ukrainian and only about legally verified security guarantees. And no other models or options.”
Podolyak said a key part of any deal would be agreement by the west that they would come to Ukraine’s aid in the event of any future conflict with Russia and that there would be no hesitation in imposing a ‘no fly zone’.
“I will add that Ukraine has never been a militaristic state that attacks or plans to attack its neighbours,” he said. “Unlike these neighbours. That is why today Ukraine wants to have a really strong pool of allies with clearly defined security guarantees.”
The promising development was nevertheless welcomed in Brussels, where Nato defence ministers were meeting in person for the first time since the war began on 24 February but suggestions of a peacekeeping force being deployed were rebuffed.
During a visit to Kyiv by the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic on Tuesday, the Polish deputy premier, Jarosław Kaczyński, had suggested that such a deployment to Ukraine could provide humanitarian aid.
The idea was rejected by defence ministers as they arrived for their meeting where they will hear from their Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, who is expected to plead for more weapons from individual Nato countries.
“I’m afraid we’re still in too early stages to talk about that,” the Dutch defence minister, Kajsa Ollongren, said. “First we have to have a ceasefire. We have to see a withdrawal from Russia. There has to be some kind of agreement between Ukraine and Russia, and I think the talks are still going on.”
She added: “It’s always good to think about what comes after that, but first, we need to achieve that.”
The Estonian defence minister, Kalle Laanet, was more positive about the proposal, saying that the deployment of peacekeepers through the UN was “one of the possibilities and, of course, we have to look to all the possibilities which can help Ukraine”.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said he would need to “look at the details first before making any decisions about what happens”.
A deployment would need the backing of the UN security council, where Russia holds a veto.
Despite the positive mood music around the peace talks, Russian shelling continued remorselessly overnight and Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said a mayor and his deputy in the port city of Skadovsk were the latest local authority leaders to be kidnapped by the Russian military.
An update from Ukraine’s ministry of defence on Wednesday said the “worst situation remains in the area of Mariupol, where the opponent tries to block the city in the western and eastern outskirts”.
Associated Press reported that Russian troops had seized a hospital in Mariupol and took about 500 people hostage during another assault on the southern port city late on Tuesday, according to the regional leader, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Two people were also confirmed dead overnight in Kharkiv after two residential buildings were destroyed.
“As a result of an artillery attack on the multi-storey buildings in the Nemyshlyansky district of Kharkiv, several apartments in two residential buildings were destroyed,” Ukraine’s state emergency services said in an update on Wednesday morning.
Rescuers worked to put out the blaze, rescuing four people from the collapse of a building but were unable to save two others who were killed in the attack, the agency added. A school also reportedly came under attack at about 3am, with part of a building destroyed.
The Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych claimed that his country’s armed forces were conducting small-scale counterattacks on several fronts. “The situation … in the main hotspots has not changed, and has no chance of changing as Russia has used up its resources,” he said.
Arestovych claimed Russia was continuing to fire missiles at Ukrainian targets, with approximately two-thirds of rockets hitting civilian buildings and infrastructure.
An assessment by the UK’s Military of Defence said Russian troops were “struggling to overcome the challenges posed by Ukraine’s terrain” and were confined mostly to the road network. It said Russia’s “continued failure to gain control of the air has drastically limited their ability to effectively use air manoeuvre, further limiting their options.”
The Ukrainian president is due to address US Congress later on Wednesday.