Russia-Ukraine talks: What are the issues between Kyiv and Moscow

The Ukrainian president talks of compromise after several rounds of talks between Kyiv and Moscow yielded no breakthrough.

Russian and Ukrainian officials take part in the talks in the Brest region, Belarus
Russian and Ukrainian officials take part in the talks in the Brest region, Belarus on March 3, 2022 [File: Maxim Guchek/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said everything will be on the table for discussion with Russia as he renewed calls for talks to end the nearly one-month war, but added that any compromise with Moscow would be put to a referendum.

The two sides have held several rounds of talks, with the status of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and the fate of breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and Kyiv’s attempt to acquire NATO membership topping the agenda.

No breakthrough has been achieved so far, but Zelenskyy on Monday again called for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as Ukrainian cities are reeling from war and devastation, and with nearly a quarter of the country’s 44 million people displaced from their homes.

Russia has sought assurances that Ukraine will renounce any plans to join NATO – a demand Kyiv seems willing to agree. President Putin has accused the United States of using Ukraine to threaten Moscow.

The Russian leader has also justified the invasion saying Moscow was defending against the “genocide” of Russian-speaking people by Ukraine. He recognised the breakaway regions days before launching the invasion on February 24.

Ukraine says Putin’s claims of genocide are nonsense.

Here is what you need to know about the peace talks so far:

Who are the negotiators?

The Russian negotiating team is led by presidential adviser Vladimir Medinsky.

Ukraine’s negotiating team is headed by Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

What are the key issues?

The question of the territory is a large sticking point for both countries.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and on February 21, it recognised the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – as independent states.

Since the invasion, Russian forces have taken control of a swath of territory across Ukraine’s southern flank north of Crimea, the territory around the rebel regions and territory to the east and west of Kyiv.

Russia has at least another 170,000 square kilometres of territory – an area about the size of Tunisia – under its control. Overall, Russia is laying claim to about a third of Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine has rejected any recognition of Russian control over its territories and repeatedly insisted on retaining sovereignty over these areas.

“Our positions are unchanged,” Ukrainian negotiator Podolyak said. He has said Ukraine insists on a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and strong security guarantees.

In comments made to local Ukrainian channels late on Monday, Zelenskyy said the future of the Crimea and Donbas territories could be up for debate and a possible referendum.

What does neutrality mean?

Russia has called for Ukraine’s neutrality, which is likely to be a central part of any negotiations.

Under international law, neutrality means the obligation of a state, brought about by unilateral declaration or coercion, not to interfere in military conflicts of third states.

Russia has insisted on Ukraine being a neutral state, with its own non-aligned military.

Before the war, Putin listed as one of his demands non-NATO membership for Ukraine, and the withdrawal of NATO forces from the Russian border. This was rejected outright by the United States.

And while some analysts say the issue of neutrality is about securing what is considered vital to Russian strategic interests, Kyiv has already acknowledged that a neutral Ukraine would no longer be a NATO partner.

“A neutral Ukraine would need to seek security ties outside of NATO to prevent a recurrence of an invasion,” said Katharine AM Wright, senior lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University.

What does ‘de-Nazification’ mean?

Putin says Ukraine has allowed Nazi-like groups to commit “genocide” against Russian-speaking communities in Ukraine, which Kyiv has dismissed as baseless.

The Azov Brigade, part of the National Guard of Ukraine, has been accused by Moscow of being a Nazi organisation engaged in carrying out war crimes.

Formed in 2014 from volunteers who fought against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, its founders have expressed extreme right-wing, white supremacist and anti-Semitic views.

Ukrainian presidential aides have repeatedly mentioned the role of Azov in the defence of the port city of Mariupol where it is based.

For his part, Zelenskyy said it is Russia that is behaving like the Nazis by visiting destruction on Ukrainian cities.

Where have the talks taken place?

Some talks have been in person at the Belarusian border or in Belarus, while other rounds have taken place via video conference.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies