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Zelenskyy aide: Deal on NATO ‘easy’ to agree with Russia — but giving up territory a no-go

An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it will be “relatively easy” to find common ground to end the war with Russia on some topics, like NATO membership and the use of Russian as a regional language — but any talk of giving up territory is “not going to go anywhere.”

Alexander Rodnyansky spoke to POLITICO’s London Playbook as Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine entered its fourth week. Turkey’s foreign minister claimed Sunday the two sides were getting close to an agreement on “critical” issues amid peace talks.

Rodnyansky said, in his view, it will be “relatively easy” to agree on some areas of the negotiations, but much harder on others, such as the territorial integrity of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia-backed separatists have sought to break away. 

“The neutrality issue is something where we can find compromise in the sense that we have to have a security guarantee, a tangible security guarantee for Ukraine going forward,” Rodnyansky said. He added this could be something like the Budapest Memorandum, “but much more concrete,” referring to the 1994 agreement under which Kyiv gave up its atomic weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S., U.K. and Russia.

“If we get [security guarantees], that would be sufficient at this point to say that we can delay our NATO ambitions, especially given the fact that NATO has said ‘no’ to us anyway. So that’s relatively easy, I would say,” Rodnyansky said.

He also said it might be possible for Ukrainians to agree to Moscow’s demands for what it calls the “denazification” of Ukrainian street names, and for Russian to be recognized as the language of some Ukrainian regions. Moscow wants Ukraine to change the names of streets honoring people it considers to be Nazis or Nazi sympathizers during World War II.

“They have to sell something to the Russian population,” Rodnyansky said. “But changing the names of the streets is not a big issue. So we can do that. That’s really what they need to sell to their populace.” 

There are streets in Kyiv and Lviv, for example, that are named after the World War II-era Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan Bandera, who Russia saw as an accomplice of Adolf Hitler. Bandera was infamous for his use of terrorist tactics and assassinations, and his Order of Ukrainian Nationalists organization carried out massacres of Poles and Jews. 

Rodnyansky also said potentially allowing Russian to be recognized as a regional language was a “nonissue.”

“All of this is just Russian propaganda, but they need to sell something to the populace in the sense of ‘we had a win here,’” he said. “That’s a PR stunt on their part, but we can give them that if that means peace and sovereignty for us … I think these are relatively easy points.”

But the “hardest part,” Rodnyansky said, is related to Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia has already recognized separatist claims and began the ongoing invasion by sending what were initially described as “peacekeeping” troops into those eastern regions.

“That’s the hardest part, obviously,” Rodnyansky said. “I mean, they went in to conquer the territory, to occupy our lands. And obviously, they’re not going to say, ‘OK, we’re just going to give up on this’ … There’s not going to be the hard points on the table. So anything that relates to our sovereignty on territory, that’s of course not going to go anywhere.”

Rodnyansky also cautioned he has personal fears that Russia is using the peace talks to keep the West at bay while it prepares to launch increasingly brutal attacks. 

He warned the negotiations could be a “carefully thought-through trick,” with Moscow “hoping to avert further sanctions by signaling to the West that ‘look, we’re close to a deal, and, therefore, no further sanctions are necessary.’ Because, you know, why stop buying oil and gas in Europe if everything’s gonna be over in a minute?”

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