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Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaks to The Globe and Mail during his short trip to Lviv on March 5.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

One of Ukraine’s negotiators in ceasefire talks with Russia says there has been a perceptible shift on the Russian side, after nearly two weeks of warfare that have seen Ukraine put up unexpectedly fierce resistance.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky, also called again for a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, a step that has been rejected by the 30-country alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Saturday that any countries that tried to impose a no-fly zone would be considered “participants of the military conflict.”

Mr. Podolyak said that while the Russian side hadn’t yet altered its demands for a Ukrainian capitulation, he sensed that its attitude was shifting as the war and unprecedented Western sanctions took their toll.

“At the very start of the war, they were insisting on total domination. They weren’t expecting that Ukraine would deliver such severe resistance,” he said in an interview on Saturday. “They are starting to realize the real price of war only now. And now we are starting to have constructive negotiations.”

Mr. Podolyak made the comments after taking part in two rounds of talks with Russian officials at the Ukraine-Belarus border over the past week. A third negotiating session is set for Monday.

He said the scale of Russia’s military operation – 15 of 24 Ukrainian oblasts, or regions, have been attacked – meant Russian officials had taken some time to develop a real understanding of the fact that the invasion was proceeding more slowly than expected, and that the Russian military was sustaining heavy losses.

“They have lost massive amounts of equipment and manpower. Sanctions like we’ve never seen before are collapsing their economy. Their country has become an outlaw on the international scene and their propaganda doesn’t work at all,” Mr. Podolyak said, speaking inside a heavily guarded government building that was surrounded with cement-and-sandbags fortifications in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

The political adviser was dressed in a military green sweatshirt and wore a pistol on his belt. Several times during the 30-minute interview, he stood up from his chair to peek out through vertical blinds at the city below.

Mr. Podolyak said that while the two sides had agreed not to publicly discuss details of the negotiations, Ukraine’s goals for the talks remained the same: an immediate ceasefire, security guarantees that Ukraine won’t be attacked again, and “significant” compensation for loss of civilian life and damage to Ukrainian cities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that the Russian demands included the disarmament of Ukraine and the recognition of Crimea – which Russia seized and annexed in 2014 – as Russian territory.

Ukraine claims to have inflicted massive losses on the Russian military, including more than 11,000 dead soldiers and hundreds of destroyed tanks. The figures, if accurate, would represent a stunning setback for the Russian military. By comparison, the Soviet Union acknowledged 15,000 deaths during its 10-year war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

According to Russian state media, 498 of the country’s soldiers had been killed in Ukraine as of Wednesday.

Ukraine’s military losses have been estimated at 1,500 troops. More than 2,000 civilians have reportedly been killed as Russia’s air force and cruise missiles have repeatedly struck civilian neighbourhoods and critical infrastructure.

The talks led to an agreement on a temporary ceasefire that would have allowed civilians to leave the besieged eastern Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha on Saturday. The ceasefire never happened, but Mr. Podolyak said he believed the problem was one of poor discipline among Russian troops.

“We appointed the locations for civilians to gather to be evacuated. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation can’t effectively control their soldiers on the ground, who continued shelling the evacuation routes. We are actively working on this now,” he said. “It could also be bad intentions … but I mostly believe it was bad discipline and bad communications with the forces on the ground.”

On Sunday, the day after the interview, Russian shelling again prevented evacuations in Mariupol, and at least three people reportedly died while trying to escape the northern Ukrainian city of Irpin.

Mr. Podolyak also repeated Mr. Zelensky’s demands for NATO to provide air cover to Ukrainian civilians. In an angry speech on Friday following a NATO meeting at which the idea of a no-fly zone was formally rejected, Mr. Zelensky told the alliance that “all the people who will die from this day will die because of you, as well.”

Mr. Podolyak said Mr. Zelensky was reflecting the opinion of all Ukrainians. “Of course, we are extremely irritated because closing the sky would drastically change the pattern of this war,” he said. “A no-fly zone means that Russia loses its tactical advantages, and peace negotiations would immediately go into another framework. Most importantly, it would stop the killing of civilians, including children.”

While Western countries say they’re worried that sending NATO planes into action over Ukraine would provoke a wider war, Mr. Podolyak argued that a global conflict had already begun – and that the only question was whether it would be fought now in Ukraine, or later somewhere else in Europe. He said a no-fly zone “would stop the development of World War Three.”


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