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Ukraine's lead negotiator says talks with Russia could take months

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(KYIV, Ukraine) — Ukraine’s lead negotiator in peace talks with Russia has said he believes the negotiations with Moscow are “absolutely real,” but has warned it may take months to reach a deal to end the war.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke to ABC News inside the heavily guarded compound of the presidential office in central Kyiv. ABC News reporters were brought through several rings of security into the building’s darkened corridors, piled with sandbags to protect against shelling and empty except for Ukrainian special forces soldiers armed with assault rifles standing every few yards.

Podolyak has been leading Ukraine’s delegation at the talks that began within days after Russia’s invasion. The first rounds were held in Belarus but recently the sides have switched to sessions by video link.

Podolyak said the talks are now taking place every day by video, mostly at the level of working groups. Both sides in the last week have said the talks are making progress and that they are moving closer to a compromise, despite intense ongoing fighting. Ukrainian and American officials though have expressed doubts whether Russia is negotiating in good faith or might be using the talks just to buy time for its forces to regroup to press on with its war.

But Podolyak said he was certain Russia was now genuinely negotiating, aware that it has no choice.

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“They’re absolutely real negotiations,” Podolyak said. “There’s no attempt to stall for time. That’s definitely not there.”

But he warned that reaching an agreement could still take “months.”

Heavy losses inflicted on Russia, devastating Western sanctions and its failure to take any key cities, including Kyiv, have forced the Kremlin to moderate its demands, Podolyak said, meaning the two sides’ positions are now far closer.

“Twenty-eight days of war have shown that Russia is not a country that can dictate conditions,” he said. “It seems to me they really do want to resolve some issues in negotiations, because there is the sanctions pressure, military pressure from Ukraine. We have already put them in their place.”

But he said that more pressure from Ukraine’s military, as well as international sanctions, was still needed to push Russia into negotiating positions that would allow for an agreement.

Russia’s core demand remains that Ukraine renounce its ambition to join NATO. In recent days, Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have signaled they understand Ukraine will not join the alliance but have emphasized Ukraine wants security guarantees from Western countries to protect it from any future Russian aggression.

Last week, the Financial Times and The Washington Post reported Russia and Ukraine were discussing a 15-point peace plan that would see Ukraine give up its NATO ambitions and accept some limits on its military in return for security guarantees from allies like the U.S., U.K. and Turkey.

Russia is also demanding Ukraine recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the independence of two Russian-occupied separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, as well as legal provisions protecting the rights for the Russian language in Ukraine.

Podolyak denied there is a 15-point plan as reported, saying it simply represented Russia’s proposals. He said both sides had “several drafts” outlining their own positions but there was no “agreed project.”

Podolyak avoided saying whether Ukraine was now ready to give up its NATO ambitions, but stressed Ukraine is now seeking separate guarantees from willing NATO countries rather than membership in the alliance.

He suggested that such guarantees from Western countries were essential to Ukraine if it is to sign any agreement.

Those security guarantees appear a significant obstacle to a deal since it is unclear how any promise from a NATO country to defend Ukraine would differ from Ukraine de facto joining the alliance.

Asked what sort of guarantees Ukraine is seeking, Podolyak suggested as an example that it could be “legally enshrined” that a no-fly zone will be imposed over Ukraine in the event of a new Russian attack. He declined to say which NATO countries Ukraine was discussing such guarantees with, since negotiations are ongoing, but he did not deny the U.S. was among them.

Ukraine wants security guarantees so “that Russia does not attack us in the future,” he said. “This requires not amorphous structures returning to the U.N., OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] or NATO, but effective alliances that will make it clear to Russia that it is not necessary to attack Ukraine’s borders, as this will have very, very bad consequences.”

The U.S. and other NATO countries have already repeatedly ruled out imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine because it would lead to a direct conflict with Russia.

The Kremlin’s spokesman said Tuesday the talks were progressing “much more slowly and less substantively than we would like” and Russia has insisted it will still achieve the goals set at the beginning of its operation against Ukraine.

Podolyak said that Russia’s positions have already become far more “appropriate,” but that it still had “illusions” that Ukraine can be made to accept ultimatums.

The danger, he said, was that the two countries were now moving into a phase of bloody stalemate that would see Russia cause heavy civilian casualties before it was finally forced into accepting a compromise.

The timing to end the war, Podolyak said, would depend on how much Western support Ukraine now received. He said Ukraine needs more air defenses and anti-tank weapons and called for Western countries to impose a full embargo on Russian oil and stricter financial sanctions. The U.S. has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine, including a new $800 million cache now being delivered.

“I think right now they are in a state of shock and are trying to understand how low they might lower their demands so that we will start to agree with them on something,” said Podolyak. “It’s a difficult process for them. For eight years they lived in illusions — they thought they were world champions on the level with the United States.”

He said continuing pain inflicted by Ukraine’s military and more sanctions would force Russia to come to terms with the reality of its position.

“Russia will become more and more adequate and will come to the negotiating position, which will allow for the signing of an agreement not only with Russia — for there’s no point to a peace agreement with Russia — but a multilaterally guaranteed agreement, where first of all there will be guarantor countries,” he said.

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