Russia and Ukraine have been closer than ever to a possible peace agreement. However, the harmony that can be seen among the negotiators has not been enough to stop the Russian bombing of civilians. The attacks continue throughout the country, but the most dramatic situation continues to be experienced in besieged Mariupol, where a week after the attack on a maternity hospital, the Russian army has bombed the theater in which hundreds of people were taking refuge, including children, as reported by the Ukrainian authorities.
What do Russia and Ukraine ask for in the negotiations?
The sixth round of negotiations began with good words from the leaders of both sides despite the “difficulties”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of a “more realistic” tone from Russia in the talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke in an interview with RBC of “some hope of reaching an agreement.”
This agreement would have as one of the key questions what model of “neutrality” Ukraine will have and how far Russia’s demands will go in this regard. The newspaper Financial Times has advanced in an exclusive details of a draft peace agreement which would include a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
The medium bases this information on three people involved in the conversations. The agreement, according to the sources cited by the FT, would imply that kyiv definitively renounces joining NATO and undertakes not to host military bases or foreign weapons, in exchange for protection from possible allies such as the US, the UK and Turkey.
The British newspaper does not detail what the 15 points mentioned would be, but points out that an obstacle to the agreement may be what kind of guarantees for its security Ukraine demands from the West and that these are accepted by Russia.
Another thorny point is Russia’s demand that the accession of Crimea that it carried out in 2014 be recognized and that the independence of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk, located in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, be accepted, something to what Ukraine has so far denied.
Mikhailo Podoliak, adviser to the Ukrainian president, told the Financial Times that “the disputed territories are a separate case.” “For now we are talking about a withdrawal from the territories occupied since the start of the military operation on February 24,” he assured.
On the model of neutrality that Ukraine must follow, Podoliak has insisted in the aforementioned newspaper that they demand the participation of countries that intervene on Ukraine’s side in the event of an attack. Furthermore, he has added that Ukraine will maintain its own army and downplayed, according to the FT, the condition of not hosting foreign bases, noting that this was already prohibited by Ukrainian law.
According to the British newspaper, two of the participants in the negotiations say that the possible agreement also contemplates “the consecration of the rights of the Russian language in Ukraine”, where Ukrainian is the only official language, although the majority of the population -including Zelensky – is bilingual.
Zelensky’s advisor later pointed out on Twitter that the draft mentioned by the FT includes the Russian demands and that Ukraine for now only confirms the request for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops and the request to establish “security guarantees”.
Despite the pitfalls, in an interview to the American chain PBSthe Ukrainian negotiator has been “confident” in the possibility of reaching “a ceasefire in the coming days”.
Asked about a possible meeting between Zelensky and Putin, Podoliak stated that it would be “the only option to end this war” and that work is being done in that direction. “We are working on documents that the presidents can discuss and sign,” he has said.
What is the Ukrainian model of neutrality?
The neutrality that Russia demands of Ukraine is one of the fundamental issues for the Russians in the negotiations.
The push for the negotiations may have come after Zelensky spoke on Tuesday about Ukraine’s entry into NATO. In a message addressed to the leaders of the Nordic and Baltic countries convened in London, Zelensky said that Ukraine assumed that it was not going to enter NATO and that they understood and accepted that the doors now “were closed.”
During the day, Russian leaders have begun to wave the option that kyiv adopt the model of neutrality with its own army from Sweden and Austria, a possibility that they recognized to see with good eyes. Both the Russian presidential advisor Vladimir Medinski and the Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov assured that these examples were on the table and that “it could be something seen as an agreement”.
The Austrian Parliament approved on October 26, 1955 a constitutional law establishing the “perpetual neutrality” of the country. They do not belong to NATO and, in the Moscow Memorandum signed between Austria and the Soviet Union in the same year, Austria accepted that it cannot join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within its borders or participate in a war.
In 2016, Sweden became a “NATO affiliate” (non-member) and signed a treaty allowing NATO operations to take place within the country’s borders. In recent days, popular support has grown for a possible union with the Atlantic Alliance, something that Russia did not like, which warned of possible “retaliation”.
However, the chief Ukrainian negotiator, Mikhailo Podoliak, has ruled out this option. In a message on Telegram, he has defended that the model “can only be Ukrainian”, and not that of the countries mentioned.
The Ukrainian model of neutrality would include “security guarantees” so that, in the event of an attack, the signatory countries “assume clear obligations” and provide weapons and air defense, including its demanded closure of airspace. Podoliak has ruled out that in the current situation the Budapest Memorandum, with which the country renounced nuclear weapons in exchange for security and recognition of its independence, is still valid. The president has demanded that the signatories of that agreement, including the United States and the United Kingdom, not remain “on the sidelines in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as is currently the case.”
In this regard, Volodímir Zelenski has appeared telematically in the US Congress to request more help against the Russian offensive. In his speech, he called for the creation of a new international alliance called “U24, United for Peace”, in which various countries come together to provide the necessary aid within 24 hours (weapons, humanitarian and economic support, sanctions ) in case of conflict.
Bombs on refugees in a theater, civilians lining up to buy bread and houses
Meanwhile, there have been attacks on civilians in the country. The City Council of the besieged port city of Mariupol has accused Russian forces of “deliberately” destroying the local Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were sheltering, according to Telegram. The number of victims is still unknown. Russia has denied these bombings.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko has also accused Russian forces of a shelling that has hit a public swimming pool in the city where civilians were also staying and has said children and pregnant women are trapped under the rubble.
The Ukrainian armed forces have also accused the Russian forces of bombing a column of civilians who had evacuated Mariupol with a multiple launch rocket system.
kyiv has woken up for the third consecutive day with blocks of flats destroyed. A 12-storey residential building has been damaged after being hit by shelling in the Shevchenkivskyi neighborhood, the emergency service says. The residents of the capital huddle in houses and shelters while the curfew continues until this Thursday.
The US embassy in kyiv has reported that 10 people queuing to buy bread in Chernigov have been killed after an attack by Russian forces.
The Ukrainian authorities have practically since the beginning of the Russian offensive, on February 24, denounced attacks by the invading troops against civilian targets. One of the last, tonight against the city of Zaporizhia, which has joined the one in kyiv against residential buildings.
Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, has also been the target of attacks with two people confirmed dead and two residential buildings destroyed, according to state emergency services which are continuing search operations and have said since the start of the war In Kharkiv alone, Russian forces “have killed more than 500 civilians.” Attacks have also been reported in the Lugansk region to the east.
At least 726 civilians killed during the invasion
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has registered at least 1,900 civilian casualties in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion until midnight on Tuesday. The latest figures from the agency raise the number of dead to 726, 52 of them minors, and 1,174 wounded.
Most of these casualties have been caused “by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including heavy artillery shelling and multiple launch missile systems, and missile and air strikes.”
The UN believes the actual figures are considerably higher.