Ukraine sticks to positions on Russia but leaves room for “compromises”

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – The Ukrainian president’s new chief of staff on Wednesday stuck to Kiev’s existing positions on ending the war against Russian-backed forces in the eastern Donbass region but said there could be compromises during negotiations with Moscow.

Andriy Yermak was speaking a day after his appointment by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which coincided with Russia installing a new point person on Ukraine who is seen as less hawkish than his predecessor.

Yermak’s appointment sparked criticism from opposition lawmakers in Ukraine, who said he might be too soft on Russia, prompting Zelenskiy to issue a statement denying there would be any political shift with Yermak in charge.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and over its backing for fighters in the Donbass region in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people and brought Western sanctions on Russia.

There are still regular casualties despite a ceasefire struck in Minsk in 2015.

Yermak rehearsed Zelenskiy’s existing positions: that ending the war was Ukraine’s priority, but that there could be no elections in the Donbass if it was still under illegal occupation and Kiev did not control its own borders.

He signalled there could be some wiggle room in talks with Russia but did not spell out what that might be.

“There can certainly be compromises during the negotiations,” Yermak said. “But we have talked about this many times, and I also want to add that I am ready and will continue to do this: speak with all patriotic, competent, reasonable forces in this country.”

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held a peace summit in Paris in December in the so-called Normandy format. Yermak said Ukraine was willing to carry out the agreements made there.

There have been some signs of a thaw in relations, including prisoner swaps last year that Yermak worked to bring about in his previous role as a presidential aide.

Asked about Russia’s new point person on Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, Yermak said:

“I have not spoken to Mr Kozak since his appointment and my appointment.”

“But regardless of who represents the Russian Federation in the negotiations in Minsk or in the Normandy format, the principles declared by President Zelenskiy are unchanged.”

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)