Russia’s Lavrov claims ‘substantial progress’ in Ukraine peace talks

Russia’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that negotiators had made “substantial progress” in peace talks with Ukraine, but Kyiv cast doubt on the assertion saying the Kremlin was still insisting on unacceptable Ukrainian territorial claims.

Sergei Lavrov told Russian state media that he saw “positive movement forward” in the talks taking place in Istanbul, though they were “not yet the final result”.

He said the Ukrainian negotiators “confirmed the necessity to ensure Ukraine’s non-nuclear, [neutral] status and its security outside of Nato” and “understand that the issues of Crimea and Donbas have been settled for good”.

But Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said Kyiv was only willing to discuss the final status of Crimea and Donbas — southern and eastern Ukrainian regions where Russia has annexed territory — once Kyiv “restores its sovereignty over them”. 

Lavrov’s comments were the latest in a series of declarations by Moscow signalling Russian president Vladimir Putin had scaled back his ambitions in Ukraine after more than month-long invasion that has been stymied by fierce Ukrainian opposition.

The US and its western allies have cast doubt on Moscow’s claims to be refocusing its offensive on Ukraine’s eastern border regions with Russia, calling it a “repositioning” rather than a “real withdrawal”.

“I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are,” US president Joe Biden said on Tuesday. “We’ll see if they follow through on what they’re suggesting.”

Still, Russia’s defence ministry on Wednesday continued to suggest that it was withdrawing from population centres in Ukraine’s north and west, including the capital of Kyiv. Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesman, said Russia was conducting a “planned rotation” near Kyiv and Chernigov after “achieving all the main tasks” in Ukraine’s north.

Konashenkov also said the Russian military was moving into the “final phase” of its operations in eastern Ukraine, a move aimed at focusing on “operations in priority theatres and . . . complete the operation to fully liberate the Donbas”, the mostly Russian-speaking border region in eastern Ukraine.

US officials said Putin’s moves in recent days come amid mounting evidence the Russian president feels “misled” by his military commanders about how his Ukraine offensive is playing out.

One US official said declassified intelligence showed Putin had been unaware the military was using conscripts in Ukraine, a sign there was a “clear breakdown” in the flow of accurate information to the Kremlin.

Putin initially denied conscripts were fighting in Ukraine — only for his own defence ministry to admit they were there a day later. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, then told reporters Putin ordered Russia’s military prosecutors to find and punish officials responsible for conscripts being deployed, supposedly in contravention of his orders.

“There is now persistent tension between Putin and the [ministry of defence], stemming from Putin’s mistrust in [ministry] leadership,” the US official said. “We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”

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Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that Russian negotiators have changed their tone in the recent peace talks, which began in Istanbul on Tuesday. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said the initial “ultimatums” issued by the Kremlin have been “quietly set aside” and the talks are now focused on “a clearly-defined specific” list of issues.

Podolyak said Kyiv was still seeking concrete security guarantees that could be enforced by “defined guarantor countries” with “powerful armies”, which would include the US and a handful of western allies.

“Pragmatically, we need to have allies who will stand by us when we need help here and now,” he said.

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