(This was refiled to add attribution to headline in March 10 story.)
By Catherine Belton
LONDON (Reuters) – Talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers produced no apparent progress towards a ceasefire on Thursday but analysts said the fact they were even meeting left a window open for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had indicated he did not have the authority to negotiate even a 24-hour ceasefire or a humanitarian corridor in Mariupol, the besieged southern Ukrainian city under heavy fire from Russian artillery.
But Lavrov left the door open for further talks and an eventual meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“I hope that this will become necessary at some point,” Lavrov said. “But preparatory work needs to take place for this.”
Moscow’s position – at least rhetorically — has appeared to soften in recent days, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the war could stop “in a moment” if Kyiv agreed to a list of demands that has appeared to narrow since the start of the war.
The focus has switched to neutrality for Ukraine and the status of Russian-occupied regions, while the Russian foreign ministry said it was not seeking to overthrow the Kyiv government.
But the Kremlin has continued its military onslaught regardless, striking a maternity hospital in Mariupol with missiles and seeking to move relentlessly closer to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that Russian forces were “indiscriminately” using lethal weapons against civilian targets. “I am worried, pessimistic,” the French leader said, adding he saw no diplomatic solution in the coming days.
Analysts said the road ahead for any negotiation would be difficult, but Moscow’s slower than expected military progress and the stinging cost of economic sanctions imposed by a united West had potentially opened an opportunity for a compromise.
“The position of Moscow in this war has weakened because they have not been able to implement their initial plans,” said Nikolai Petrov, senior research fellow for Eurasia at Chatham House.
“For Putin, the imposing of sanctions has been a terrible thing. They are killing the Russian economy and also acting on the people around him.”
Petrov said Putin faced an increasingly difficult situation, including with his army.
“The army is demoralised and is not ready for a long-term operation. When they spoke of days initially that was one thing, but with a longer war it is absolutely different,” he said.
“For the political elite for whom the war was a shock, there is a complete feeling that Putin made a colossal and tragic mistake. The Russian side has softened its position but it can’t soften it any further.”
Others, however, cautioned that Putin could still seek to escalate. A defiant Kremlin leader on Thursday said Russia would emerge stronger from the economic sanctions, while ultimately the measures would rebound on the West.
“There is pressure from the elite” to find a compromise, said Sergei Guriev, the well-connected former chief economist for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.
“The question is how effective it can be. Putin so far seems to be doubling down. If he believes in the foreseeable future he will manage to encircle Kyiv and destroy it, he may say I will go on.
“In that sense an immediate decision on a further EU embargo on Russian oil imports would be important,” Guriev said, referring to discussions ongoing in the EU on whether to join a US and UK ban on purchases of Russian oil.
“WE HAVE MOVED THE DIAL”
Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the Kremlin’s reframing of its demands had provided “the first indication that Moscow is prepared to climb down on regime change”.
“There is also an element of compromise in Zelenskiy’s declaration about an alternative to NATO membership,” he said.
“We have moved the dial for the process from zero to at least having the possibility for a discussion. But the indications of troop movements toward Kyiv may indicate that the worst may still be ahead of us,” Eyal said.
On Tuesday Zelenskiy responded to the apparent softening of Moscow’s demands by saying he was ready to withdraw the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, an aim that is currently enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution but has long been a source of deep concern for Russia.
Zelenskiy said instead, however, he wanted a collective security agreement with the participation of Ukraine’s neighbours, as well as the United States, France, Germany and Turkey, that would provide security guarantees in case of further attack.
He also said he was willing to seek a compromise over Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed in 2014. Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Moscow was now demanding Kyiv accept Crimea was Russian territory and recognise the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Analysts cautioned the path was still fraught for both sides.
“The conditions being forwarded by Russia would still amount to a significant blow for Ukraine… Zelenskiy is being asked to accept the de jure loss of Ukrainian territory,” Eyal said.
While there had been no discussion of any withdrawal of Russian troops from territory it had taken since the start of the war, Zelenskiy’s desire for a collective security agreement instead of NATO membership meant “effectively he wants a bespoke NATO,” Eyal said.
Petrov said it would be psychologically difficult for Ukrainians to accept any loss of territory, particularly after Russia’s devastating invasion and Ukraine’s success so far in fiercely slowing it down, Petrov said.
But this had to be weighed against the chance of stopping a war in which people were dying in their hundreds every day.
“The Ukrainians are in euphoria that they have been able to heroically resist when no one believed that they could, and in the belief that if the West will help, they just need to keep fighting and they will win,” Petrov said.
“But this is not correct and it does not help find a rational solution.”
(Reporting by Catherine Belton, Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jon Boyle)