The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As death toll mounts, high-level talks between Ukraine and Russia fail to yield breakthrough

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, center, chairs a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, far left, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, far right, on March 10 in Antalya, Turkey. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/AP)
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ANTALYA, Turkey — The first high-level talks between Ukraine and Russia since the invasion began last month failed to produce an agreement Thursday. Ukraine’s foreign minister said his country would not “surrender,” while his Russian counterpart warned the West against sending more weapons to Ukraine and defiantly vowed to overcome a rising battery of sanctions.

The discussions, between Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, were facilitated by Turkey and lasted about an hour and a half, Kuleba said during a news briefing after the talks. Ukraine received no response to its proposals for a 24-hour cease-fire as well as humanitarian relief for the besieged city of Mariupol, he said, indicating that Lavrov did not have the authority to agree to the cease-fire and would take the issue to “other decision-makers” in Russia.

“Ukraine is strong. Ukraine is fighting. Ukraine made Russian initial plans fail,” Kuleba said. “We are ready to seek balanced diplomatic solutions to put an end to this war, but we will not surrender.”

Thursday’s negotiations, held on a chilly day in the Turkish seaside resort town of Antalya, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is also hosting a diplomatic conference, comes amid an intensifying push by several world leaders to advance talks between Russia and Ukraine. The diplomatic flurry has been fueled in part by a sense that maximalist positions in Moscow and Kyiv might be shifting, however subtly, despite huge gaps that remain.

Intermediaries seek diplomatic opening, despite gloom about Putin’s aims in Ukraine

For his part, though, Lavrov struck a tough tone, declaring that Russia would not back down in the face of Western sanctions and boycotts, which expanded Tuesday, and would do “everything so that we will not be dependent on the West in any way.”

Lavrov also played down the possibility of direct talks between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has long been calling for. Russia is not interested in “talks for talks’ sake” before there is agreement between negotiating teams, Lavrov said.

Instead, the Russian envoy pushed back against international condemnation of a Russian airstrike that struck a maternity hospital Wednesday, killing at least three people. He told reporters, without providing evidence, that the building had housed Ukrainian fighters, and he declared that Russia had never attacked Ukraine in the first place. It was Moscow, he claimed, that was fighting a “life-or-death struggle for Russia’s place on the political map of the world.”

Those trying to act as intermediaries include Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who traveled to Moscow over the weekend and has spoken multiple times since then with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Zelensky, an Israeli official familiar with the talks said. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have also spoken with Putin and Zelensky in recent days.

Turkey, a NATO member that has struggled to balance its ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, has also been eager to offer itself as an intermediary. Turkey has extensive energy and commercial ties with Russia, as well as an increasingly lucrative military relationship with Ukraine, centered on Turkey’s provision of armed drones to Kyiv. Earlier this week, Erdogan said he hoped the talks in Turkey “will open the door to a permanent cease-fire.”

Turkey’s Erdogan visits Ukraine with unique perspective on brewing crisis

After the meeting concluded Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had not expected any “miracles.” During the talks, which Cavusoglu attended, “no one raised their voices,” he added.

Kuleba said he was prepared to hold another similar meeting “if there are prospects for a substantial discussion and for seeking solutions.”

“The last thing I want today is to kill hope. To kill hope, in the civilians who suffer from Russian air raids, bombardments and killings committed by the Russian army on the ground,” he said.

Shih reported from New Delhi. Paul Sonne, Souad Mekhennet and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.