‘We always have hope,’ Ukrainian negotiator says despite stalled talks with Russia

Click to play video: '‘It is hard’: Ukraine negotiator Rustem Umerov speaks on challenges of peace talks' ‘It is hard’: Ukraine negotiator Rustem Umerov speaks on challenges of peace talks
WATCH: 'It is hard': Ukraine negotiator Rustem Umerov speaks on challenges of peace talks – Apr 27, 2022

A member of the Ukrainian delegation negotiating an end to the ongoing war with Russia says the talks have been extremely hard, physically and emotionally, but he believes they remain necessary to try and save as many lives as possible.

Rustem Umerov, a member of Ukraine’s national parliament, told Global News that Ukraine is willing to keep negotiating despite continued broken promises by the Russian side to open humanitarian corridors for evacuating citizens from besieged cities like Mariupol.

To walk away now, Umerov said, would be devastating for the Ukrainian people and lead to more deaths.

“We assume that we are wartime peace envoys,” he said Wednesday from an undisclosed location.

Though the outcome of the war will be decided primarily on the battlefield, he said he and his colleagues have to take the negotiations seriously and consider it their job.

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Read more: No Mariupol humanitarian corridor agreement with Russia yet, Ukraine says

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have held several rounds of talks, including high-profile summits in Belarus and Turkey, since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.

In the nine weeks since the war began, there is no sign of peace. As Ukraine defends itself — helped by the increase in lethal weapons being sent by other countries — it is holding firm against Russia’s demands to demilitarize and hand over control of some parts of the country, including the eastern Donbas region.

Peace talks further soured over Ukrainian accusations that Russian troops carried out atrocities in the town of Bucha, where dead bodies were found in the streets after Russian forces withdrew from the area.

Russia has denied targeting civilians, and Putin has forbidden Russians from calling his “special military operation” a war. Moscow has also accused Ukraine of stalling the negotiations, which have not been held in person since March 29, shortly before the atrocities in Bucha became public.

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Russia-Ukraine conflict: Putin, Guterres meet in Moscow as UN pushes for cease-fire – Apr 27, 2022

Umerov said Russia is “twisting the story” by blaming Ukraine, saying he and other negotiators are simply trying to defend Ukrainian territory while saving civilian lives.

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He said Putin is also making it more difficult by undercutting the talks on the battlefield and through his statements in the media and to world leaders.

Last week, Putin told European Council President Charles Michel in a phone call that Kyiv was showing it was not ready to seek mutually acceptable solutions and he accused the Ukrainian side of being “inconsistent” in the negotiations.

“The only person who can stop this bloodshed is Vladimir Putin,” Umerov said.

Umerov confirmed he was one of the people who suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv last month. He said he is fine now, and the cause is still being investigated.

Sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was at the same meeting and is widely reported to have also suffered symptoms of poisoning. Umerov said Abramovich is helping mediate the discussions but is not affiliated with the Kremlin.

“He is independent,” he said. “He is not part of the Russian delegation. Nevertheless, he is a mediator. He tried to mediate.”

Read more: Ukraine seeks to negotiate with Russia over fate of civilians, troops in Mariupol

The head of Moscow’s delegation said last week that “several long conversations” were held with the Ukrainian side on Friday, but did not provide any details. Earlier in the week, the Kremlin said Russia had submitted a new written proposal, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had neither seen nor heard about it.

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Right now, Umerov said his chief focus is getting the remaining people trapped in Mariupol out safely.

Local officials say about 10,000 civilians remain in the city — which has been nearly destroyed by Russian attacks — including some of the last armed fighters who have been holed up in a steel plant that is still being hit by airstrikes.

Multiple attempts to set up humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol have failed over the past week, with both sides blaming the other for the breakdowns.

Umerov echoed Zelenskyy’s comments earlier this month that any further deaths in Mariupol from Russian attacks would count as a “red line” that could end the negotiations.

“We are very concerned and we are heavily working for this evacuation plan,” he said.

“If someone were to kill (civilians or fighters in Mariupol) on purpose, that means that it’s a red line crossed.”

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In the meantime, Umerov called on the world to act more quickly to deliver heavy weapons to the Ukrainian front lines, and to do away with regulations that may be slowing those deliveries down.

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Canada has sent M777 howitzers and ammunition to Ukraine and finalized a contract on Wednesday to deliver eight armoured vehicles. The United States and other countries have also pledged millions of dollars worth of lethal aid.

While Umerov said he is appreciative of Canada’s efforts, he suggested some of the promised weapons are being held up by issues with payments and logistics, meaning they’re not getting to where they’re needed.

“The speed is extremely important, so we need to supply as much equipment as we can,” he said. “Otherwise, this may become the beginning of the Third World War.

He said Ukraine is fighting for its independence, but added the world needs to understand Putin may not stop with Ukraine, putting European and global security at stake.

Read more: As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters 3rd month, here’s a look at what’s happened so far

“Unfortunately, still, many countries are afraid to supply directly to Ukraine because they will be in a bad situation with the Russian Federation on diplomatic or political stance,” Umerov said.

“If we are not going to defend Ukraine, it means that all the other countries will be threatened by Russia. And we are the only country at the moment able to fight back against the Russian Federation.”

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Despite the dire conditions on the ground, Umerov says he and his fellow negotiators will continue to seek a diplomatic solution to end the war. He says failing to do so would also open the door to further escalation by Russia.

“We always have hope,” he said.

“We are hopeful, but the decision on ending this war is in the Kremlin.”

— with files from Reuters

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