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Ukrainian Delegation Speaks To The Press After Talks With Russia, In Istanbul, Turkey On March 29.
Ukrainian delegation speaks to the press after talks with Russia, in Istanbul, Turkey on March 29. (Yasin Akgul / AFP / Getty Images)

When the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met in Turkey just 19 days ago, the atmosphere was toxic – and neither side went further than reiterating existing views.

Today, at a meeting in Istanbul between Russian and Ukrainian teams, the atmosphere was much more positive and the outlines, however faint, of an overall settlement of this terrible destructive war, began to come into focus.

It included the future of Crimea and the Donbas region, Ukraine’s neutral status, protected by security guarantees, a significant withdrawal of Russian forces currently north of Kiev and even the prospect of a meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Ukrainian team accepted the status of Crimea to kick in the long grass, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Zelensky adviser, commented on the future of Crimea, whose annexation has never been accepted by Ukraine or other Western countries: “It has been agreed in bilateral format to take a 15-year hiatus and conduct bilateral discussions on the status of these areas.

“We have discussed separately that during the 15 years that the bilateral talks are taking place, there will be no military hostilities,” he told reporters.

This will take one of the most controversial issues off the table for now.

Both sides seemed to be in a constructive mood. Podolyak said the Russian negotiators had “accepted the treaty which sets out ways to end the war and will work out their counter-proposals.”

The Russian news agency TASS quoted the head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, as saying that the talks were constructive. And he said that “Russia is taking two steps towards Ukraine for de-escalation.”

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The most immediate of these is the Russian statement that hostilities against Chernihiv and in the direction of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, will be drastically reduced. Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine, is surrounded by Russian forces and has suffered devastating destruction over the past three weeks.

Equally noteworthy, Medinsky said that the Ukrainian proposals have now been formulated sufficiently so that they “can be submitted to the President. And our appropriate answer will be given.”

“Provided the agreement is worked on quickly and a compromise is found, the opportunity to make peace will approach,” Medinsky said – the most upbeat assessment of a Russian official since the first round of talks at the end of February.

Russian officials have previously downplayed any involvement in Putin’s trial, saying more needs to be negotiated before the Russian leader sits in person for direct talks.

Now the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti – referring to the Russian delegation – has talked about the possibility of a meeting between Putin and Zelensky at the same time as the initialing of the peace treaty by the foreign ministers of both countries.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who mediated the talks, outlined a possible roadmap, with the “top priority of establishing a ceasefire as soon as possible to pave the way for a permanent political solution.”

Those “more difficult” issues will be put to the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers to “make final adjustments to the common approach.” And then a meeting between Putin and Zelensky will be on the agenda, he said in comments to reporters after the talks.

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An overview emerges: For Ukraine, security guarantees have always been a critical part of any solution to the conflict. Gradually, President Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials stepped away from Ukraine’s previous insistence that he had the right – even the obligation – to apply for NATO membership, as enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution.

Now a very different formulation emerges.

One member of the Ukrainian team, Davyd Arakhamia, told Ukrainian TV after the meeting: “We insist that this is an international treaty, which will sign all the guarantees of security, which will be ratified.”

That treaty will have to be ratified by parliaments in the sponsor countries, according to Ukrainian officials, who are apparently building as much insurance as possible into the mechanism. The Ukrainians also want the sponsors to include the permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia included.

The guarantees will be very specific, Arakhamia said. In case of aggression or a military operation aimed at Ukraine, “consultations should take place within three days.”

“After that, the sponsor countries are obliged to help us. And military aid, and the armed forces, and weapons, and the closed air – everything we need so badly now, and we can not get it.”

The Ukrainians are now looking at what can be called protected – and permanent – neutrality.

Read more here.

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