Tone of Ukraine Crisis Shifts as Russia Signals Openness to Talk More

MOSCOW — The tone of the crisis over Ukraine shifted Monday as Russia’s top diplomat endorsed more talks to resolve its standoff with the West, and Ukrainian officials hinted at offering concessions to avert war — even as Russian warships massed off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and Russian ground troops appeared poised to strike.

In stage-managed, televised meetings, the Kremlin sent its strongest signals yet that it would seek further negotiations with the West rather than launch immediate military action. State television showed Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov telling President Vladimir V. Putin there was still a diplomatic path ahead. Minutes later, it showed Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu telling Mr. Putin that what he characterized as “large-scale drills” around Ukraine were coming to an end.

“I believe that our possibilities are far from exhausted,” Mr. Lavrov said, referring to Russia’s negotiations with the West. “I would propose continuing and intensifying them.”

Mr. Putin responded ambiguously: “Good.”

It was a sign that the Kremlin was still holding out the possibility that it could use its troop buildup to achieve key objectives without military action. The prospect for such a scenario was bolstered in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where President Volodymyr Zelensky left open the possibility of dropping his country’s ambition to join the NATO alliance — a move that would help fulfill one of Mr. Putin’s key demands.

At a news conference, Mr. Zelensky emphasized that NATO membership was “for our security,” with the goal of joining the alliance written into the country’s constitution. But he acknowledged the difficult place the country found itself in, nearly completely encircled by Russian forces and with partners like the United States insisting they will not send troops into Ukraine to repel a Russian invasion.

“How much should Ukraine go on that path?” Mr. Zelensky said of NATO membership. “Who will support us?”

The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, he posited, could be “like a dream.”

Mr. Zelensky spoke alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, the latest Western leader trying shuttle diplomacy to avert war. The flurry of diplomacy came as fears of war have caused oil prices to spike, pushing well past $90 a barrel.

“If Russia violates the territorial integrity of Ukraine again, we know what to do,” Mr. Scholz said. “In the event of military escalation, we are ready for very far-reaching and effective sanctions in coordination with our allies.”

Mr. Scholz will fly to Moscow on Tuesday for crisis talks with Mr. Putin, following up on last week’s Kremlin visit by President Emmanuel Macron of France. Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland — a country that is one of Russia’s most vocal critics in Europe — was also scheduled to visit Moscow on Tuesday to meet with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Lavrov. And Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio of Italy prepared to depart for his own Eastern European tour, which will bring him to Kyiv on Tuesday and Moscow on Wednesday.

In his televised meeting with Mr. Putin, Mr. Lavrov highlighted the West’s diplomatic frenzy as a sign that the Kremlin’s strategy of pairing negotiations with military pressure was working. Mr. Putin laid out that strategy in an address to Russian diplomats in November: it was good that “tensions” were high with the West, the president told them, and it was “important for them to remain in this state for as long as possible.”

And he directed his diplomats to demand “security guarantees” from the West, such as a legally binding pledge that Ukraine will never join the NATO alliance.

“Our initiative,” Mr. Lavrov told Mr. Putin, “shook up our Western colleagues and became the reason they have no longer been able to ignore many of our previous appeals.”

Mr. Lavrov also said that Russia had prepared a 10-page response in its written back-and-forth with NATO and the United States over the Kremlin’s security demands.

Ambiguity about what comes next has been central to Mr. Putin’s strategy in the crisis set off by his troop buildup. Western officials warn that an invasion remains a real possibility in the coming days.

In Monday’s televised meetings, Mr. Putin did not state his own position, even after his defense minister told him that Russian military exercises were winding down. He did not specify which exercises were ending, but Russia has used the pretext of exercises to move troops and warships from across the country to within striking distance of Ukraine.

“Some of the drills are already ending and some will end soon,” Mr. Shoigu said.

“We’ll speak in more detail now,” Mr. Putin told him, before the Kremlin’s video feed ended.

The ambiguity over Russia’s intentions is forcing Ukraine and its Western partners to make hard decisions about what concessions to make to prevent an invasion — and causing discord over how seriously to take the threat.

The secretary of Ukraine’s security council, Oleksiy Danilov, reiterated the government’s position on Monday that an invasion is less likely than how the United States has portrayed it. Such comments are intended to prevent panic among Ukrainians but also might be aimed at easing negotiations with Russia, analysts have said.

“We recognize the risks that exist on the territory of our country,” Mr. Danilov said. “But the situation is under complete control. Moreover, we, as of today, do not see that a full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation could happen on the 16th or 17th of this month.”

United States officials last week suggested Russian military action could begin within days. “We don’t see it,” Mr. Danilov said.

The outlines of a possible diplomatic resolution, though still highly ambiguous and with uncertain prospects, arose in media interviews by a senior diplomat and at Mr. Zelensky’s joint news conference with Mr. Scholz.

For Ukraine, joining NATO is an aspiration that was enshrined in its constitution after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented a war in the country’s east in 2014. But before these events, Ukrainian law formally defined the country as neutral.

At issue is a paradox at the center of the conflict. Western leaders have steadfastly refused to rule out membership for Ukraine under the alliance’s “open door” policy for new members but also say it is a distant prospect. Russia has demanded Ukraine not join NATO, characterizing the neighboring country’s potential membership in the alliance as an existential security threat.

Since December, the Ukrainian government has been quietly pursuing negotiations that could lead to acceptance of some form of neutrality, or another solution more narrowly focused on Russian demands in a cease-fire agreement in the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday evening, Mr. Zelensky struck a tone that was less dismissive of the threat of Russian military action than his previous comments. Mr. Zelensky said he had declared Wednesday — the date U.S. officials had suggested as a possible date for the start of a Russian incursion — as a day of “national unity.”

Mr. Zelensky said that previous predictions by Western governments of a possible start of war had proven wrong and said there was no reason to worry on Wednesday.

In public, officials including the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, have rejected concessions as counterproductive and likely only to encourage further Russian aggression. But Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain and a former foreign minister under Mr. Zelensky, on Sunday said his government was “flexible in trying to find the best way out” and was considering dropping the country’s NATO ambitions.

He was asked in a BBC interview: “If it averts war, will your country contemplate not joining NATO, dropping that as a goal?”

He replied: “We might, especially being threatened like that, blackmailed like that, and pushed to it.”

His comments caused a stir, and the Ukrainian government quickly sought to clarify the matter. Oleh Nikolenko, the foreign ministry spokesman, tweeted that Mr. Prystaiko’s comments had been reported out of context. “Ukraine’s position remains unchanged,” he said. “The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the constitution.”

But Mr. Zelensky did not disavow Mr. Prystaiko’s comment. He said it reflected suggestions the Ukrainian government has received including from foreign leaders. These he characterized as “hinting just a tiny bit to Ukraine that it’s possible to not risk it and constantly hit on the question about future membership in the alliance, because these risks are linked to a reaction from Russia.”

About this line of discussion with Ukraine’s Western allies, Mr. Zelensky said, “It seems to me that no one is hiding it anymore.”

Mr. Scholz, standing beside Mr. Zelensky while speaking with reporters, agreed that NATO membership for Ukraine was in any case “not on the agenda” right now.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, speaking before Mr. Zelensky’s news conference in Kyiv, welcomed the ambassador’s comments while acknowledging the response from the Ukrainian foreign ministry.

“Clearly, Ukraine’s confirmed rejection of the idea of joining NATO would be a step that would significantly facilitate the formulation of a better response to Russia’s concerns,” Mr. Peskov said on Monday. But given the confusion around the comments, he added: “We cannot interpret it as a fact that Kyiv’s conceptual worldview has changed.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv.

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