Ukraine says no ceasefire progress at ‘difficult’ talks with Russia

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ANTALYA (AFP, REUTERS) - Ukraine and Russia made no progress towards agreeing to a ceasefire at tense talks in Turkey, the Ukrainian foreign minister said on Thursday (March 10).

“We also talked on the ceasefire, a 24-hour ceasefire, but no progress was accomplished on that,” Dmytro Kuleba told reporters after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the southern Turkish city of Antalya.

“It seems that there are other decision-makers for this matter in Russia,” Kuleba said, in apparent reference to the Kremlin.

He also repeated his vow that the country will not give in, saying “I want to repeat that Ukraine has not surrendered, does not surrender, and will not surrender.”

Kuleba described the meeting as “difficult”, accusing his counterpart of bringing “traditional narratives” about Ukraine to the table.

He said he wanted to emerge from the meeting with an agreement on a humanitarian corridor from the besieged city of Mariupol but “unfortunately Minister Lavrov was not in a position to commit to it”.

Kuleba said Lavrov “will correspond with respective authorities on this issue.”

He added that he would be ready to meet with Lavrov “again in this format if there are prospects or a substantial discussion and for seeking solutions”.

But he emphasised: “We are ready for diplomacy, we seek diplomatic decisions but as long as there are none, we go with dedication, sacrificing ourselves, to defend our lands, our people, in the face of Russian aggression.”

On his part, Lavrov accused the European Union and other countries of “dangerously” backing the supply of arms to Ukraine, as it resists an incursion by thousands of Russian troops.

“We see how dangerously our Western colleagues, including in the European Union, are acting now, which, in violation of all its so-called principles and values, encourages the supply of deadly weapons to Ukraine,” Lavrov told a press conference after the talks.

The West is trying to use Ukraine to undermine Russia, he said.

What Moscow wants is a friendly, demilitarised Ukraine without any threat to Moscow and Russian culture, Lavrov said.

He also said he did not believe Russia’s standoff with the West over Ukraine would lead to nuclear war.  

“I don’t want to believe, and I do not believe, that a nuclear war could start,” he said. 

He added that rumours about a potential Russian attack against the former Soviet Baltic states “appear to be old hoaxes”.

Lavrov also said that Russia will deal with its economic problems.

"We will cope with them - we have coped with difficulties at all junctures of our history," he said, adding that Russia will "come out of the crisis with a better psychology and conscience".

"We have no illusions the West can be a reliable partner," he continued, saying it will "betray whoever, and will betray its own values".

"I assure you we will cope and will do everything not to rely on the West ever, in any areas of our lives."

Mr Lavrov said Russia "drew attention" to the fact that Ukraine was "turning into anti-Russian" over many years, adding: "Ukraine was being turned into a pro-Western experimental tool."

Responding to Kyiv’s condemnation of Wednesday’s bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Lavrov said the building was no longer used as a hospital and had been occupied by Ukrainian forces, though the Kremlin separately said the incident was being investigated.

Pictures of Thursday's meeting released earlier by Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova showed the Russians and Ukrainians sitting opposite each other.

Russia’s war in Ukraine started on Feb 24 and entered its third week on Thursday with none of its key objectives reached despite thousands of people killed, more than two million made refugees, and thousands forced to cower in besieged cities under relentless bombardment.

Officials from Kyiv and Moscow have held several rounds of discussions in Belarus. But the meeting in Antalya represents the first time Russia has sent a minister for talks on the crisis.

Kuleba earlier tempered expectations for a ceasefire agreement or other results from the meeting.

Dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow has so far yielded several local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors to evacuate residents, but Russia has been accused of breaching those agreements.

Russia's invasion has uprooted more than 2 million people in what the United Nations calls the fastest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War Two.

Nato member Turkey has repeatedly offered to mediate between the sides and will host their top two diplomats after weeks of mediation attempts by world powers.

Ahead of the meeting, Kuleba urged Lavrov to approach the talks "in good faith, not from a propagandistic perspective".

"I will say frankly that my expectations of the talks are low," Kuleba said in a video statement on Wednesday. "We are interested in a ceasefire, liberating our territories and the third point is to resolve all humanitarian issues."

Moscow has said it is ready for talks with Ukraine, but that all of its demands - including that Kyiv takes a neutral position and drops aspirations of joining the Nato alliance - must be met to end its assault.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (centre) and Ukranian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (right) at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, on March 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Delegations from the two countries have held three rounds of talks previously, two in Belarus and one in Ukraine. Despite some positive signs on humanitarian arrangements, those negotiations have had little impact.

Moscow calls its incursion a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and dislodge leaders it calls "neo-Nazis".

Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss that as baseless pretext for an unprovoked war against a democratic country of 44 million people.

Turkey's balance

Bringing Lavrov and Kuleba together marked "a step forward" and could escalate diplomacy at higher levels in Moscow, said Mustafa Aydin, professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

"Russia is not yet close to entertaining peace, though it is slowly changing its stance," he said. "Its initially uncompromising posture is slowly giving way to a negotiation stance though not yet enough for a concrete outcome."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) during the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, on March 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Turkey shares a maritime border with Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea and has good ties with both. Ankara has called Russia's invasion unacceptable and appealed for an urgent ceasefire, but has opposed sanctions on Moscow.

While forging close ties with Russia on energy, defence, and trade, and relying heavily on Russian tourists, Turkey has also sold drones to Ukraine, angering Moscow. It also opposes Russian policies in Syria and Libya, as well as its 2014 occupation of Crimea.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said both Lavrov and Kuleba had requested that he attend the talks on Thursday, adding he wished the meeting could be a "turning point".

Last weekend, Turkey and Israel ramped up their push for mediation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a ceasefire in a call on Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held talks with Putin in Moscow at the weekend, and later spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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China hopes for end to 'war'

Describing for the first time the situation in Ukraine as a "war", China said it hoped the fighting can stop as soon as possible. 

“We hope to see fighting and the war stop as soon as possible,” state broadcaster CCTV cited Foreign Minister Wang Yi as saying in a video conference call with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Wang Yi called on all sides to calm down and to take more actions to prevent escalation in Ukraine, CCTV reported.  

China has refrained from calling Russia’s attack on Ukraine an “invasion” or to condemn it.

'The Russian tanks are over there'

In Ukraine, the General Staff said Russian forces are continuing their "offensive operation" to encircle Kyiv, while pressing attacks on a string of other cities across the country.

At a deserted service station on a motorway northeast of the city, a Ukrainian officer warned vehicles not to go any further on Wednesday.

“The Russian tanks are just over there, two kilometres away,” he told one car, ordering it to turn round and go back.

“Drive in a zig-zag to avoid their shots,” he advised.

US aid passes House

The United States meanwhile rejected Russian claims that it is involved in bioweapons research in Ukraine, and warned Russia could be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in the war.

Washington has strongly backed Ukraine, leading the push for tough international sanctions and sending weapons and other aid.

But it has ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone and rejected a Polish plan to transfer fighter jets via a US air base for fear of being drawn into the conflict directly.

Washington has however beefed up defences in Poland, where it said on Wednesday it is sending two new surface-to-air missile batteries.

On its part, Britain said it is preparing to send more portable missile systems to help Ukraine, in addition to more than 3,000 anti-tank weapons sent so far, while Canada pledged an additional US$50 million (S$67 million) worth of military equipment.

The US House of Representatives meanwhile green-lit a spending package including nearly US$14 billion for Ukraine and allies in eastern Europe. It will now need to be approved by the Senate.

The International Monetary Fund has also approved a US$1.4-billion emergency package for Kyiv to provide “critical financial support". Western nations and allies are also trying to squeeze Moscow with unprecedented sanctions.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Wednesday urged the entire G7 to ban Russian oil imports, saying the world’s top economies should “go further and faster” in punishing Moscow for invading Ukraine.

But some nations are wary, with French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warning the current spike in energy prices could produce effects comparable to the 1973 oil shock.

Follow The Straits Times' live coverage on the Ukraine crisis here.

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