Russia Peace Talks 'Useless,' Says Liberal Ukraine Leader as Invaders Push

Current and former Ukrainian politicians have told Newsweek that Monday's talks with Russia were mostly theater, with both sides maneuvering for more time to regroup amid the ongoing invasion.

Ukrainian and Russian delegations—not including Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin—met at the Ukraine-Belarus border on Monday, even as fighting continued around the country and invading Russians tried to encircle Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Putin aide Vladimir Medinsky led the Russian delegation, and said after six hours of talks that the two sides "found certain points on which common positions could be foreseen."

Zelensky aide Mykhailo Podolyak said a second round of negotiations could happen "in the near future." He said: "The next meeting will take place in the coming days on the Polish-Belarusian border, there is an agreement to that effect."

But Ukrainians living under the constant threat of Russian missiles, shells, and armored columns told Newsweek they had little hope that an agreement would end the fighting.

Even while talks were ongoing, Russian artillery was devastating the eastern city of Kharkiv, destroying residential buildings and killing civilians. Ukrainian leaders said the attacks constituted war crimes.

Russia has so far largely avoided the massed, indiscriminate artillery fire many observers expected, but Monday's horror in Kharkiv could be a sign of new tactics after a disappointing open to the campaign.

Six days of fighting has won Russia control of no major cities, while the European Union, NATO, and the U.S. have all thrown their weight behind Kyiv and crippled the Russian economy with sanctions.

Kira Rudik is the leader of the liberal Voice party, which has 20 seats in Ukraine's Rada parliament. She told Newsweek from Kyiv on Tuesday that the negotiations were "useless."

Less than an hour after the talks broke up, Russian ballistic missiles again began falling on Kyiv. Putin, Rudik said, cannot be trusted. "If he says my troops are not there, this means my troops are there," she said.

"If he says, I want peace, this means I'm gathering my troops to attack you. If he says I am taking my troops back, this means I'm regrouping and there will be extreme fire. If he says I want peaceful negotiations, he means I want you to be distracted so I could attack you even more.

"That's why you wouldn't find a Ukrainian who will tell you there is a chance of peace with him. No, there is none. We know that for sure. Because we have been through that so many times.

"This negotiation happened because both Ukraine and Russia needed some time."

While Russian forces try to take key strategic objectives—especially the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv, and the cities of Odessa and Mariupol on the south coast—the Ukrainians are waiting for international sanctions to bite and foreign weapons to arrive.

Kyiv volunteer defends capital Molotov cocktail
A Kyiv resident and volunteer prepares a rear post with trenches and boxes of Molotov cocktails, in Kyiv on February 28, 2022 DAPHNE ROUSSEAU/AFP via Getty Images

"We anticipate that it will take five to seven days before...every single Russian citizen will feel the sanctions," Rudik said. "He is raising the stakes and trying to hit us where it hurts...We will fight it and we will survive."

Iuliia Mendel, a former Zelensky press secretary who retains ties with serving officials, told Newsweek from Kyiv that among Putin's demands is that Ukraine cedes the entire eastern Donbas region to the self-declared separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk and recognize Crimea—annexed by Russia in 2014—as Russian territory.

Mendel said no Ukrainian could agree to either. "We cannot give up our territories," she said.

Svitlana Zalishchuk—a former Rada member, former foreign policy adviser to ex-Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, and current adviser to both Naftogaz CEO Yuriy Vitrenko and Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister on European Euro Atlantic integration—told Newsweek she did not believe in a deal.

"What can it be? To recognize Crimea? No. To give pro-Russian autonomy to Donbass? No. To make concessions on sovereignty? Impossible. To agree to a puppet government [in Kyiv]? Impossible," Zalishchuk told Newsweek from western Ukraine.

"On the other hand, it will show Ukrainian people and the international community that we are ready to negotiate."

The context of the talks belies any potential impact. "These are very strange negotiations," Mendel said.

"Usually a ceasefire is something that goes together with negotiations. And during the negotiations, we had all our cities heavily shot.

"Kharkiv was shot with Grads [vehicle-borne multiple rocket launchers], 87 buildings were damaged, people died, people were wounded. The east is smashed, absolutely."

The shelling during talks, Mendel said, is "blackmail."

The absence of the two commanders-in-chief meant the first round of talks would never produce real results, Mendel said. Both delegations have returned to Moscow and Kyiv to converse with the presidents.

"They're very important people who sat down at the table, but they cannot make these decisions without Putin," she said. "This type of communication, of course, means a lot of delays. And delays mean people's lives and infrastructure."

Prisoners of war will likely also feature in the discussions, as will political prisoners arrested by Russian and separatist authorities in Crimea and Donbas. "We have a lot of captured Russians," Mendel said. "This is a good time to start negotiating: 'You give us Ukrainians and we're going to give you back your servicemen.'"

While leaders talk, Ukrainians are focusing on survival. In the capital, Rudik and other parliamentarians are working to protect civilians, organize defense, beef up cyber and communications security, and keep track of necessary infrastructure repairs.

"I'm learning about what was done after the Second World War, and what was done by the United States in Europe, because we will have to do the same," Rudik said.

Smoke billows over Kyiv after Russian strike
Smoke billows over the town of Vasylkiv just outside Kyiv on February 27, 2022, after overnight Russian strikes hit an oil depot. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. intelligence officials have said they expect the capital to be encircled and fall to Russian troops. Ukrainian resistance has been fiercer than Moscow expected, and it appears that Putin has not been able to achieve any of his early strategic goals.

But Russia's overwhelming military force may still yet force the Ukrainian defenders into bloody asymmetric urban warfare.

"I have plans to survive," Rudik said, noting she had formed a "crew" of fighters to resist the Russians. "We have our group which is operating along with our army, and we are getting ready to stay and fight. You always need people who will be fighting."

"We will be able to survive up to one month's siege," she added.

"It's not only ourselves, it's our neighbors and others, they are anticipating something like this. We know the Russians are going to surround the city and create a humanitarian catastrophe here. We are ready for that."

Ukrainian leaders have expressed confidence they can hold their capital. Zelensky has refused to leave, his reported response to U.S. officials asking him to do so—"I need ammunition, not a ride"—already the stuff of legend.

Rudik said occupation is not a foregone conclusion. "We hope to break the encirclement by ourselves," she said of any possible siege. "Russians have been trying to get to the city many, many times, but it didn't work as they planned.

"Putin didn't plan for this invasion to last six days, and the Russian soldiers were told that they will be greeted here as liberators...That was the day I was learning to clean, assemble and disassemble my rifle.

"I just said: 'Okay, yeah. That makes me very motivated.'"

Political figures like Rudik might be on Russia's reported "kill list," a collection of people to be detained or otherwise neutralized in the event of an occupation to help subdue the local population.

Ukrainian politicos told Newsweek last week they had more pressing concerns.

"I am on the list," Rudik said. "But it's not a question for me. I don't plan to flee. I plan to be here, together with my crew, with my people, with the people who elected me. This is the time when you really need to show what you're made of.

"I plan to live for another 40 years—maybe 50. I want to be able to look back and say that I did everything to protect my country...If I'm the last Ukrainian in the world, I will be holding my rifle and will try to take as many Russians with me as possible."

Rudik lamented the cost to the youngest generation of Ukrainians: "My generation, we hoped—we really did hope—that we would raise our children as the generation that wouldn't know war, wouldn't know this crushing poverty that we had in the 90s, wouldn't know revolutions, that would be normal with no trauma and be able to build the new Ukraine.

"Now I feel like we failed them. This is so upsetting, and makes me so angry and so emotional, I can't even begin to tell you. That's why we will not be able to finish this war with a peaceful negotiation. That's why we will be fighting back."

Ukraine troops on Russian vehicle in Kharkiv
An Ukrainian Territorial Defence fighter examines a destroyed Russian infantry mobility vehicle GAZ Tigr after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 27, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images