The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia held talks in Turkey Thursday marking the first high-level discussions between the two countries since Russia launched an all-out invasion of its neighbor. But after a 90-minute dialogue, both sides said there had been no breakthrough.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said he had discussed a 24-hour cease-fire with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, but no progress was made. “We also talked on the cease-fire, but no progress was accomplished on that,” Kuleba told reporters after the meeting concluded. He described the in-person meeting as “difficult” and accused Lavrov of bringing “traditional narratives” to the negotiating table.
“I want to repeat that Ukraine has not surrendered, does not surrender, and will not surrender,” said Kuleba.
Meanwhile, Lavrov said Russia is ready to continue negotiations and he said Russian President Vladimir Putin would not refuse a meeting with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss “specific” issues. He blamed Western powers for the conflict, saying Russia was forced to act because the West had rejected “our proposal on security guarantees.” And he echoed Putin’s claims that Russia’s military campaign was going according to plan.
Hopes for any breakthrough had been low heading into the negotiations in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya. Ukraine’s Kuleba cautioned he had “low expectations.”
And Zelenskyy also appeared to lower expectations of any major breakthrough, telling a German broadcaster Thursday “only after direct talks between the two presidents can we end this war.”
The dialogue brokered by Turkey was mediated by Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and photographs released at the start showed the Russian, Turkish and Ukrainian delegations sitting around a U-shaped table, with each minister accompanied by two other officials.
Turkey’s Cavusoglu said when announcing the talks earlier this week he hoped it would mark “a turning point and... an important step towards peace and stability.” And on Wednesday, after holding more phone conversations with Kuleba and Lavrov, he said the talks could “crack the door open to a permanent cease-fire.”
But passions are running especially high in Ukraine following the bombing Wednesday of a children's hospital in the besieged Ukrainian town of Mariupol which, according to Kyiv, killed at least three people, including a young girl. Ukraine has dubbed the attack on the hospital a “war crime.” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the attack as “horrific” and the U.S. accused Russia of a “barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians.”
Amid international outrage over the bombing, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov adopted a defensive tone saying Moscow will seek information from the Russian military. “We will certainly ask our military about this, since we don’t have clear information about what happened there. And the military are very likely to provide some information,” Peskov told reporters at a news briefing.
Ukraine's foreign ministry is demanding an immediate “cessation of hostilities.” Meanwhile, Russia remains determined that Ukraine must abandon its ambitions to join NATO. Moscow also says Kyiv must accept Moscow's jurisdiction over Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 — and recognize the independence of two pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
President Zelenskyy told German broadcasters that he’s willing to consider some compromise, but Ukraine has ruled out ceding any territory or accepting Crimea’s annexation and Kyiv is pressing to be admitted as a member of the European Union. Ukraine also wants firm security guarantees from the U.S. and Western powers; that is likely to be unacceptable to Russia, which is demanding Ukraine accepts a status of “neutrality.” Midweek, Peskov said the status of neutrality must be enshrined in an amended constitution for Ukraine.
A top foreign policy aide to Zelenskyy, Ihor Zhovkva, said in an interview with Bloomberg Wednesday that while “we are ready for a diplomatic solution, our first and foremost pre-condition for having such kind of negotiations is immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Russian troops.
On Tuesday Zelenskyy signaled he is ready to drop Ukrainian ambitions to join NATO. “Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago, after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine,” he said in an interview with the U.S. network ABC News.
But there are few signs Putin is ready to compromise as much as he would seemingly have to in order to strike a deal with Ukraine, recently telling French President Emmanuel Macron his military will press on and that everything is going to plan. That is in spite of stiffer-than-expected resistance stalling his efforts to seize Kyiv and Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv.
Some Western diplomats had noted ahead of Thursday’s talks an apparent shift in Putin’s recent statements in which he has appeared to back away from talk of a new government being needed in Kyiv. But Western diplomats say that if talks resume, they remain uncertain what Putin is ready to settle for.
“He has a clear plan right now to brutalize Ukraine. But to what end?” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday. But he queried, “What is his endgame?” He said he hoped Putin “will decide to try to finally cut the losses that he’s inflicted on himself and inflicted on the Russian people.”
Until Thursday, only two rounds of low-level talks have taken place between the Ukrainians and the Russians, and they focused on establishing humanitarian corridor for civilians fleeing intensifying Russian bombing and shelling.