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Zelenskyy open to talks with Russia - on Ukraine's terms

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine. [AP photo]

Ukraine’s president has suggested he’s open to peace talks with Russia, softening his refusal to negotiate with Moscow as long as President Vladimir Putin is in power while sticking to Kyiv’s core demands.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeal to the international community to “force Russia into real peace talks” reflected a change in rhetoric. In late September, after Russia illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions, he signed a decree stating “the impossibility of holding talks” with Putin.

But the preconditions the Ukrainian leader listed late Monday appear to be non-starters for Moscow, so it’s hard to see how Zelenskyy’s latest comments would advance any talks.

Zelenskyy reiterated that his conditions for dialogue were the return of all of Ukraine’s occupied lands, compensation for war damage and the prosecution of war crimes. He didn’t specify how world leaders should coerce Russia into talks.

Western weapons and aid have been key to Ukraine’s ability to fight off Russia’s invasion, which some initially expected would tear through the country with relative ease. That means Kyiv cannot ignore how the war is seen in the U.S. and the European Union, according to political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

“Zelenskyy is trying to maneuver because the promise of negotiations does not oblige Kyiv to anything, but it makes it possible to maintain the support of Western partners,” Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center independent think tank, said.

“A categorical refusal to hold talks plays into the Kremlin’s hands, so Zelenskyy is changing the tactics and talks about the possibility of a dialogue, but on conditions that make it all very clear,” he added.

While support for Ukraine has garnered strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, a growing conservative opposition could complicate that next year if Republicans take control of the House in Tuesday’s elections.

Recent comments by Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy that lawmakers would not cut a “blank check” to Ukraine reflect the party’s growing skepticism about the cost of support.

In private, Republican lawmakers who support aid to Ukraine see an opportunity to pass one more tranche of assistance this year with the current Congress.

Russia and Ukraine held several rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey early in the war, which is now nearing its nine-month mark, and Zelenskyy repeatedly called for a personal meeting with Putin - which the Kremlin brushed off.

The talks stalled after the last meeting of the delegations, held in Istanbul in March, yielded no results.

Zelenskyy said Monday that Kyiv has “repeatedly proposed (talks) and to which we always received crazy Russian responses with new terrorist attacks, shelling or blackmail.”

Russia resumed calls for talks after it started losing ground to a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and the south in September. Zelenskyy rejected the possibility of negotiating with Putin later that month after the Russian leader illegally claimed four regions of Ukraine as Russian territory.

 Zelenskyy said Monday that Ukraine’s conditions for dialogue included the “restoration of (Ukraine’s) territorial integrity ... compensation for all war damage, punishment for every war criminal and guarantees that it will not happen again.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Andrei Rudenko, said Tuesday that Moscow was not setting any conditions for the resumption of talks. He accused Kyiv of lacking “good will.”

“This is their choice. We have always declared our readiness for such negotiations,” Rudenko said.