Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there is “some hope for reaching a compromise” in talks to end Moscow’s war on Ukraine, adding that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had recently made some “interesting statements.”
Lavrov’s comments, made in an hourlong interview with Russia’s RBC TV channel on Wednesday morning, came after Zelenskyy conceded his country would not be allowed into NATO, before saying his aides had indicated the positions in peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators “sound more realistic.”
Lavrov told the Kremlin-friendly RBC on Wednesday that “that is a more realistic assessment from President Zelenskyy,” noting a “change of rhetoric.”
And in a major watering down of its previous demands, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Moscow would consider a “compromise” of making Ukraine a neutral state comparable to Sweden or Austria — both of which are in the EU and have military forces, but are not NATO members.
But Ukraine was quick to reject the proposal, with Zelenskyy adviser and negotiator Mikhail Podolyak arguing talks should first and foremost prioritise “security guarantees” for the country.
“Ukraine is now in a state of direct war with the Russian Federation. Therefore, the model can only be ‘Ukrainian’ and only about legally verified ‘security guarantees,’” Podolyak said, adding that these should entail other foreign powers acting as security guarantors who would intervene if Ukraine is invaded, and a guarantee to close Ukrainian skies in times of conflict.
On Tuesday, a frustrated Zelenskyy had said, during a video call with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and representatives from Joint Expeditionary Force countries in the Baltics and Northern Europe, that it was unlikely Ukraine would join NATO.
“Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO,” Zelenskyy said. “For years we have been hearing about the alleged open door, but we have also heard now that we cannot enter. This is true, and it must be acknowledged.”
That seemed to indicate something of an openness to conceding on the key Kremlin demand that Kyiv should walk back on its goal of joining the alliance, enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. Moscow has also demanded that Kyiv recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the independence of the so-called People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Kremlin-backed separatists declared in the same year.
In a video posted to social media after 1 a.m. Kyiv time on Wednesday, Zelenskyy said “any war ends in an agreement.” He said “we all want peace, as soon as possible,” but added that “time is still needed for the decisions to be in Ukraine’s interests.”
In his RBC interview, Lavrov said NATO’s refusal of Kyiv’s requests to close the skies over Ukraine indicated there are still “sane people” in the alliance, and “welcomed” the “current situation.” He echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s previous comments that Moscow was ready to “look for any other ways to ensure the security of Ukraine, and European countries, and of course the Russian Federation, except NATO expansion to the east.” But Lavrov added that Russia continued to seek the complete demilitarization of Ukraine.
Podolyak, a member of the Ukrainian delegation in the peace negotiations, said in an update on Twitter on Tuesday that “there is certainly room for compromise” in talks. But he added on Wednesday that Ukraine had launched counteroffensives against Russian forces, and their success “radically changes the parties’ dispositions.”
The comment came as Putin’s war entered its 21st day, but with few signs of significant gains on the ground — though Ukrainian cities continue to be shelled by Russian artillery.
But despite some optimism that both sides seem to be indicating a peace deal could be nearing, with talks due to continue Wednesday, there’s no sign of an imminent breakthrough. Putin held a call with European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday, with the Kremlin subsequently releasing a statement warning: “Kyiv is not demonstrating a serious commitment to searching for mutually acceptable solutions.”
In his address Tuesday to U.K. and Joint Expeditionary Force leaders, Zelenskyy warned that other countries which share a border with Russia should consider their “independent defense capabilities.” He also added: “We are doing our best to get the jet fighters and missile defense systems. We need some new format, if we cannot enter [NATO’s] open doors, then we have to cooperate with platforms and unions that allow us to do so.”
On Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša — some of Ukraine’s top supporters in the EU — traveled to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy and his Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.
In his late-night video, Zelenskyy thanked the leaders for coming, saying: “This is important support. When our Kyiv is a target for the invaders, it is especially important and especially courageous to be here, next to me, next to friends. That is how leadership is shown.”
And he issued an open invitation for other leaders to follow suit.
“I invite all friends of Ukraine to visit Kyiv,” Zelenskyy said. “It can be dangerous here, it is true. Because our sky is not yet closed to Russian missiles and aircraft. The decision to strengthen our arsenal in the air has not yet been made. We have not received aircraft,” he added, referring to the back-and-forth between Ukraine and the U.S., EU and Poland over supplying fighter jets to Kyiv.
Slovenia’s Janez Janša told POLITICO that the situation “is indeed difficult for Ukrainians,” and said the leaders discussed efforts to strengthen sanctions, and heard “many genuine ideas” on how to do so. They also spoke about increasing humanitarian and other aid, speeding up and increasing the deliveries of military equipment, as well as speeding up the procedures on Ukraine’s candidate status for joining the EU, Janša said.
Lili Bayer and Victor Jack contributed reporting.