Ukraine ‘ready’ to talk to Russia on Crimea if counteroffensive succeeds

Kyiv is willing to discuss the future of Crimea with Moscow if its forces reach the border of the Russian-occupied peninsula, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told the Financial Times.

The comments by Andriy Sybiha, deputy head of Zelenskyy’s office, are the most explicit statement of Ukraine’s interest in negotiations since it cut off peace talks with the Kremlin last April.

“If we will succeed in achieving our strategic goals on the battlefield and when we will be on the administrative border with Crimea, we are ready to open [a] diplomatic page to discuss this issue,” Sybiha said, referring to Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive.

He added: “It doesn’t mean that we exclude the way of liberation [of Crimea] by our army.”

Sybiha’s remarks may relieve western officials who are sceptical about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim the peninsula and worry that any attempt to do so militarily could lead President Vladimir Putin to escalate his war, possibly with nuclear weapons.

To date Zelenskyy has ruled out peace talks until Russian forces leave all of Ukraine, including Crimea.

Sybiha is a veteran diplomat who focuses on foreign policy in the president’s office and has been at Zelenskyy’s side at key moments in the war.

He said the president and his aides were now talking specifically about Crimea, as Ukraine’s army gets closer to launching its counteroffensive to regain territory.

A spokesperson for Zelenskyy did not respond to requests for comment.

Rear Admiral Tim Woods, the British defence attaché in Washington, said on Wednesday that Crimea would need “a political solution because of just the concentration of force that is there and what it would mean for the Ukrainians to go in there”.

He added: “I don’t think there’s going to be a very quick military solution . . . hence we need to see what are favourable conditions for Ukraine to negotiate and I think Ukraine would be up for that.”

In the early days of the war, Ukraine was willing to negotiate with Moscow over the future of Crimea rather than insisting on regaining it militarily at all costs.

But at present the only known contacts between Kyiv and Moscow are to negotiate prisoner of war exchanges and the return of children forcibly deported to Russia.

Ukraine broke off the peace talks after the discovery of alleged Russian war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, while Zelenskyy signed a decree declaring negotiations with Putin impossible after the Kremlin annexed four provinces in September.

Ukraine’s president has repeatedly made clear his ultimate goal of bringing all his country’s land, including Crimea, under Kyiv’s control.

But in May last year he indicated Ukraine could consider a peace deal if Russian forces returned to positions in eastern Ukraine predating last year’s invasion and suggested the issue of Crimea would be resolved later through diplomacy.

Crimea has been under Russian occupation since February 2014 and was annexed by Moscow the following month after a mock referendum — a move condemned internationally as an illegal land grab.

Ukrainian forces have recently stepped up their attacks on Russian military facilities in the peninsula, including land and sea-based drone assaults.

Kyiv is also hoping that its coming counteroffensive will make headway south — possibly through Zaporizhzhia province — and sever a land bridge that allows Russia to supply its invasion forces from Crimea.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Zelenskyy adviser, told Radio Free Europe on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces would be on Crimea’s doorstep in “five to seven months”.

But some of Ukraine’s western allies fear Putin could resort to tactical nuclear weapons to defend the peninsula, whose status the Kremlin says is non-negotiable.

“Some of them are so afraid of Ukraine approaching the administrative border of Crimea that they are directly or indirectly trying to postpone this moment,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director at the New Europe Centre, a Kyiv-based think-tank.

She added that concern was so high about fighting over Crimea escalating that it affected some allies’ “decisions on what kind of weapons to supply Ukraine with and at what speed”.

Getmanchuk also said the Ukrainian leadership felt “that after a successful counteroffensive [in the rest of the country] Putin might be eager to talk”.

But a shift by Ukraine on negotiations could face resistance at home. A poll in February and March by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found 87 per cent of Ukrainians considered any territorial concessions to achieve peace unacceptable. Only 9 per cent said they would accept concessions if it meant lasting peace.

The poll found 64 per cent of Ukrainians want Ukraine to try to retake all of its territory, including Crimea, “even if there is a risk of a decrease in western support and a risk of a protracted war”.

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