Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy could meet “soon”, a senior aide to Ukraine’s president has claimed, even as the Kremlin downplayed hopes of an early breakthrough in the peace talks.
The head of Ukraine’s negotiating team, Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Zelenskiy, said on Wednesday that Moscow was scrutinising proposals submitted by Kyiv in Istanbul which he believed could lead to a presidential peace summit.
“We can expect a presidential meeting to be held some time soon,” Podolyak said. “When is too early to tell, but it is a logistical issue.”
Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said it was “positive” that Ukraine had set out its position, but he talked down expectations of a summit.
“We cannot state that there was anything too promising or any breakthroughs,” he said, adding that there was “a lot of work to be done”.
Later on Wednesday, Vladimir Medinsky, the head of Russia’s delegation in the talks this week, once again raised hopes, however, by claiming that Zelenskiy’s proposals indicated a readiness by Ukraine to reach a deal “for the first time in years”, adding that “if it fulfils the obligations, the threat of creating a Nato bridgehead on the Ukrainian territory will be removed”.
The claims and counter-claims from the two capitals highlight the negotiating games being played by both sides as the war continues to rage in hotspots across Ukraine, with little sign of the bloodshed abating.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Wednesday that more than 4 million people had fled Russia’s “utterly senseless” war .
According to the UN body, 4,019,287 people have fled abroad since the start of Russia’s invasion on 24 February, exceeding its initial estimate that the war would create up to 4 million refugees. More than 90% are women and children.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Twitter he had just arrived in Ukraine and was beginning discussions with authorities, the UN and other partners on “ways to increase our support to people affected and displaced by this senseless war”.
The agency has said the speed and scale of the displacement is unprecedented in Europe since the second world war. The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) also said that as of mid-March, 6.48 million people were internally displaced.
“They need urgent, life-saving aid,” the IOM said on Wednesday. Before the war, Ukraine had a population of 37 million in the regions under government control, excluding Crimea and the Russian-controlled regions in the east.
At the talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, Ukraine proposed a framework for peace under which it would remain neutral, with its security guaranteed by third-party countries through a treaty similar to Nato’s article 5 mutual defence commitment.
The proposals, intended to come into force only in the event of a complete ceasefire, included a 15-year consultation period on the status of the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine and annexed in 2014.
Medinsky said Ukraine had appeared ready to commit to a nuclear-free status and drop its aspirations, contained within the country’s constitution, to join the Nato military alliance.
He said Ukraine had also signalled that it could agree not to host foreign military bases and that it would only hold joint drills with foreign militaries in consultation with countries serving as guarantors of a peace deal, including the five permanent UN security council members, of which Russia is one.
Podolyak said any deal would need to be put to a referendum, which could only happen once Russian troops had withdrawn but, in what appeared to be a further concession, he added that this could be only to “the positions as of 23 February 2022”, in an apparent recognition that soldiers will remain at least in Crimea.
Key to Kyiv is that the four other security council members – the US, UK, France and China – commit to intervening should there be any future invasion of Ukrainian territory – which he claimed Moscow had accepted.
Podolyak, who said the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had been playing an effective role as a moderator of the talks, said: “We have submitted our suggestions to the Russian party saying that in principle this is time for the presidential-level meeting. When that is going to happen is rather a logistical question.
“The Russians need to go over our suggestions and give some preliminary response. Now we are working at the working group level online, clarifying different points so that package of documents is ready.”
He added: “We came to Istanbul to define the intermediate positions in the key documents. In our group as we see it, in the Ukrainian negotiating team, we see a possibility to sign preliminary agreements and to launch the presidential meeting process so, perhaps, in two or three or four days we will have a final version that will be confirmed by the Russians with amendments and then we can reach the next round of negotiations.”
Moscow described the talks as “meaningful” and “constructive” and subsequently pledged to “radically reduce” its military activity around Kyiv and Chernihiv, a heavily shelled city 100 miles north of the capital, as a goodwill gesture to “to increase mutual trust” in the peace negotiations.
Col Oleksandr Motyuzyanyk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian ministry of defence, said they had seen “some partial movement of certain units of the enemy from Kyiv and Chernihiv areas”.
“At the same time there is no mass-scale withdrawal from those areas,” he said. “The enemy has been withdrawing units which suffered the highest losses in order to replenish them. As far as we see the enemy has not abandoned its attempts to take or at least siege the capital city and Chernihiv.”
Western analysts and diplomats noted that Russia’s offer to partially pull back came after its advance, thwarted by stiff resistance and supply problems, had all but stalled, and that Moscow had already said it was refocusing its military goals on expanding the territory held by pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Donbas regions.
Officials in both Kyiv and Chernihiv said that both cities were still facing heavy shelling.