Peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv will resume on Friday, a senior Ukrainian official has said, amid mounting western scepticism about Russia’s intentions in the talks more than five weeks into its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said on Thursday that talks would continue by video, focusing on the peace framework the Ukrainian side presented during a face-to-face meeting in Istanbul this week that Moscow described as constructive.
Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow would not refuse a separate meeting between the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, providing the talks between them were “substantive”.
Kyiv and its allies have cast doubts, however, on Russia’s commitment to talks, noting there had been no real sign of a partial military pullback in northern Ukraine it had promised as a goodwill gesture and suggesting the Kremlin may be playing for time.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, further upped the diplomatic stakes, signing a decree requiring foreign buyers to pay in roubles for Russian gas from Friday or see their energy contracts halted – a demand instantly rejected by Germany, France and the UK rejected and which Berlin described as blackmail.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said Turkey’s aim was to bring Lavrov and Kuleba together for further talks. “There could be a higher-level meeting, at least at the level of foreign ministers, within a week or two weeks,” he said.
“What matters is that the two sides come together and agree on a lasting ceasefire,” Çavuşoğlu said, adding that “significant progress” had been made but conceding that some may have been “tactical manoeuvring” and little had changed on the ground.
Arakhamia praised the role of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in the peace talks, saying he had initially acted as an “unofficial back-channel of communication” and was now trying to act more as a neutral mediator between the two sides.
Çavuşoğlu also said the former Chelsea football club owner was “playing a useful role”, while the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said Abramovich plainly had Putin’s trust and was “sincerely trying” to end the conflict.
However, the Kremlin has already rejected some key elements of Ukraine’s peace proposals and Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, said on Thursday that Putin had told him in a telephone conversation that “conditions were not yet mature” for a ceasefire.
“In Putin’s opinion, there have been some small steps ahead in the negotiations,” Draghi said. “We all want to see a ray of light … There is a desire to move forward soon, but it is also too soon to overcome scepticism.”
Western analysts and diplomats, including in the US and UK, have said the Kremlin may be using talk of de-escalation as a ploy while regrouping and resupplying its forces in order to redeploy them for a more aggressive offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, said on Thursday alliance intelligence indicated Moscow was not scaling back military operations in the north, but instead redeploying forces to join attacks in Ukraine’s contested eastern Donbas region held by pro-Russian separatists.
Kyiv’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, has insisted, however, that the Kremlin is considering Ukraine’s proposals, which include an international treaty under which the country would remain neutral with its security guaranteed by third countries.
The proposals – intended to come into force only in the event of a complete ceasefire – also include a 15-year consultation period on the status of the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine and annexed in 2014.
Podolyak said a draft agreement could be signed in the next few days, paving the way for a meeting between the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Putin. Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, also hinted progress looked possible.
In speeches to the Dutch and Australian parliaments, meanwhile, Zelenskiy on Thursday asked for more weapons and aid and a complete halt to business with Russia, warning that failure to halt Moscow’s aggression would encourage others to follow suit.
“Stronger sanctions are needed so that Russia doesn’t have a chance to pursue this war further in Europe,” the Ukrainian president Dutch MPs via a video link. “Stop all trade with Russia.” Energy imports from Russia must be halted “so that you do not pay billions for the war”, he added.
Referring to the international war crimes courts in The Hague, Zelenskiy also called for justice. “Those who gave the orders to bombard and shell Ukraine must be called to account. In The Hague, city of tribunals, people know that,” he said.
To Australia’s parliament, Zelenskiy said Russia must be held accountable. “If we don’t stop Russia now, if we don’t hold Russia accountable, then some other countries of the world … will decide that such things are possible for them as well,” he said.
The Ukrainian leader repeated his call for tougher sanctions, accusing Moscow of “nuclear blackmailing” to limit the global response to the invasion, which has seen Russia cut out of much of international trade through unprecedented sanctions.
The European development bank (EBRD) said on Thursday it expected the Russian economy to contract by 10% this year and Ukraine’s by 20%, calling the war between the two countries “the greatest supply shock” for 50 years.
Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida in Rome