MOSCOW — The tone of the Ukraine crisis changed on Monday as Russia’s top diplomat endorsed more talks to resolve its standoff with the West, and Ukrainian officials hinted they would offer concessions to avert war – even as Russian warships massed off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and Russian soil the troops appeared poised to strike.
In stage-hosted televised meetings, the Kremlin sent its strongest signals yet that it would seek to continue negotiations with the West rather than launch immediate military action. State television showed Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov telling President Vladimir V. Putin that there was still a diplomatic way to go. Minutes later, it showed Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu telling Mr. Putin that what he described as “large-scale exercises” around Ukraine were coming to an end.
“I believe our possibilities are far from exhausted,” Lavrov said, referring to Russia’s negotiations with the West. “I would suggest continuing and intensifying them.”
Mr. Putin replied ambiguously: “Good”.
It was a sign that the Kremlin still retained the ability to use its troop buildup to achieve key objectives without military action. The prospect of such a scenario has been heightened in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, where President Volodymyr Zelensky has left open the possibility of abandoning his country’s ambition to join the NATO alliance – a move that would help to respond to one of Mr Putin’s main demands.
At a press conference, Zelensky stressed that NATO membership was “for our security”, with the aim of joining the alliance enshrined in the country’s constitution. But he acknowledged the difficult place the country found itself in, almost completely surrounded by Russian forces and with partners like the United States insisting they would not send troops to Ukraine to repel an invasion. Russian.
“How much should Ukraine go down this path?” Mr. Zelensky talked about joining NATO. “Who will support us?
The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, he postulated, could be “like a dream”.
Mr Zelensky spoke alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the latest Western leader to try shuttle diplomacy to avert war. The flurry of diplomacy came as war fears pushed oil prices up to well above $90 a barrel.
“If Russia violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity again, we know what to do,” Scholz said. “In the event of a military escalation, we are ready for very significant and effective sanctions in coordination with our allies.”
Mr Scholz will fly to Moscow on Tuesday for crisis talks with Mr Putin, following a visit to the Kremlin last week by French President Emmanuel Macron. Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland – a country that is one of Russia’s most vocal critics in Europe – was also due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday to meet his Russian counterpart, Mr Lavrov. And Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has prepared to leave for his own tour of Eastern Europe, which will take him to Kyiv on Tuesday and Moscow on Wednesday.
In his televised meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Lavrov pointed to the West’s diplomatic frenzy as a sign that the Kremlin’s strategy of combining negotiations and military pressure was working. Mr Putin laid out this strategy in an address to Russian diplomats in November: it was good that “tensions” were high with the West, the president told them, and it was “important for them to stay in this state as long as possible “. possible.”
And he has ordered his diplomats to demand “security guarantees” from the West, such as a legally binding promise that Ukraine will never join the NATO alliance.
“Our initiative,” Mr. Lavrov told Mr. Putin, “has shaken our Western colleagues and become the reason why they were no longer able to ignore many of our previous calls.”
Lavrov also said Russia prepared a 10-page response in its written exchanges with NATO and the United States on the Kremlin’s security demands.
Ambiguity over what comes next has been central to Mr Putin’s strategy in the crisis triggered by his troop build-up. Western officials warn that an invasion remains a real possibility in the coming days.
In Monday’s televised meetings, Mr Putin did not elaborate on his own position, even after his defense minister told him that Russian military exercises were coming to an end. He did not specify which drills were ending, but Russia used the drills as a pretext to move troops and warships from across the country within striking distance of Ukraine.
“Some of the exercises are already ending and some will be ending soon,” Shoigu said.
“We will talk in more detail now,” Mr Putin told him, before the Kremlin video feed ended.
Ambiguity over Russia’s intentions is forcing Ukraine and its Western partners to make tough decisions about what concessions to make to prevent an invasion — and causing division over how seriously to take the threat.
Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov reiterated the government’s position on Monday that an invasion is less likely than how the United States has portrayed it. Such comments are aimed at avoiding panic among Ukrainians, but could also be aimed at facilitating negotiations with Russia, analysts said.
“We recognize the risks that exist on the territory of our country,” Danilov said. “But the situation is under total control. Also, to date, we do not see that a full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation could occur on the 16th or 17th of this month.
Last week, US officials suggested Russian military action could begin within days. “We don’t see it,” Mr. Danilov said.
The outlines of a possible diplomatic resolution, although still very ambiguous and with uncertain prospects, emerged during media interviews by a senior diplomat and during Mr. Zelensky’s joint press conference with Mr. Scholz .
For Ukraine, joining NATO is an aspiration written into its constitution after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and fomented a war in the east of the country in 2014. But before these events, Ukrainian law officially defined the country as neutral.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
This is a paradox at the center of the conflict. Western leaders have firmly refused to rule out Ukraine’s membership under the alliance’s “open door” policy for new members, but also say that is a distant prospect. Russia has demanded that Ukraine not join NATO, calling the neighboring country’s potential membership of the alliance an existential security threat.
Since December, the Ukrainian government has been quietly pursuing negotiations that could lead to the acceptance of some form of neutrality, or another solution more closely focused on Russian demands in a ceasefire agreement in the conflict. long-standing in eastern Ukraine.
In a televised address to the nation Monday night, Mr. Zelensky adopted a tone that was less dismissive of the threat of Russian military action than his earlier comments. Mr Zelensky said he had declared Wednesday – the date that US officials had suggested as a possible date for the start of a Russian incursion – as a day of “national unity”.
Mr Zelensky said previous predictions by Western governments about a possible outbreak of war had proven wrong and said there was no cause for concern on Wednesday.
In public, officials including Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have dismissed the concessions as counterproductive and likely to only encourage further Russian aggression. But Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain and a former foreign secretary under Mr Zelensky, said on Sunday his government was ‘flexible in trying to find the best way out’ and was considering abandoning the country’s ambitions in within NATO.
He was asked in a BBC interview: “If it avoids war, will your country consider not joining NATO, abandoning that as a goal?”
He replied, “We could, especially be threatened like that, blackmailed like that and pressured into doing it.”
His comments caused a stir and the Ukrainian government quickly sought to clarify the matter. Oleh Nikolenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, tweeted that Mr Prystaiko’s comments were taken out of context. “Ukraine’s position remains unchanged,” he said. “The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the constitution.”
But Mr. Zelensky did not disavow Mr. Prystaiko’s comment. He said this reflected suggestions the Ukrainian government had received, including from foreign leaders. These, which he characterized as “suggesting a tiny bit to Ukraine that it is possible not to take risks and constantly address the issue of future alliance membership, because these risks are linked to a reaction from Russia”.
Of this line of talk with Ukraine’s Western allies, Mr. Zelensky said: “It seems to me that no one is hiding it anymore.
Mr Scholz, standing next to Mr Zelensky while speaking with reporters, agreed Ukraine’s NATO membership was ‘not on the agenda’ at the moment anyway .
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov, speaking ahead of Mr. Zelensky’s press conference in Kyiv, welcomed the ambassador’s comments while acknowledging the response of Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
“Obviously, Ukraine’s confirmed rejection of NATO membership would be a step that would greatly facilitate the formulation of a better response to Russia’s concerns,” Peskov said Monday. But given the confusion around the comments, he added: “We cannot take it as a fact that Kiev’s conceptual worldview has changed.”
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow and Andrew E. Kramer from Kiev.