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Ukrainian and Russian negotiators sound optimistic after latest round of peace talks

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Ukraine's top negotiator is expressing some optimism about the latest round of talks with Russia. Russia's negotiator is also sounding rather upbeat, saying the Ukrainians are starting to meet core Russian demands. In Washington, the mood is more skeptical, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman says, for now, the U.S. is taking a wait-and-see approach.

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WENDY SHERMAN: We really hope that President Putin will commit seriously to the peace talks underway. But we are focused on what Russian forces do, not what Russia says.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is right to be skeptical, says William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: And we just really need to take our cue and our lead from the Ukrainians.

KELEMEN: The Ukrainians have put forward some ideas in talks with the Russians - one is a referendum on neutrality for Ukraine to give up its NATO ambitions, as Russia has long demanded. But for that, Ukraine wants security guarantees. And Taylor, speaking via Skype, says Washington needs to consider that.

TAYLOR: If they're willing to go to an Austria-like neutrality - you know, a member of the EU, not a member of NATO - giving up on those security guarantees that come with the collective defense like NATO, then they would like to have more than they got in the Budapest Memorandum.

KELEMEN: That was the 1994 agreement signed by Russia, the U.S. and U.K. offering Ukraine security assurances for giving up Soviet-era nuclear weapons. This time, Ukraine will be seeking more concrete security guarantees from various countries. The British ambassador to the U.N., Barbara Woodward, says her country is open to that.

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BARBARA WOODWARD: And what we want to do is help in any way we can to end the war, to secure the removal of the Russian troops and invasion. And we'd be happy to play a role in that if we were asked by the Ukrainian government, yes.

KELEMEN: What may be harder for negotiators to resolve are Russia's territorial demands, says Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation. Russia is insisting that Ukraine recognize its control over Crimea and the independence of regions run by Russian proxies in the Donbas.

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SAMUEL CHARAP: No Ukrainian government, I think, would ever be able to do that and survive, and this government shows no indication of being willing to do so. And frankly, Russia hasn't even won the territorial control piece on the battlefield yet.

KELEMEN: Charap was speaking at an online event organized by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that has been promoting peace negotiations. Former Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering told the group that even though the U.S. is not a part of these peace talks, it does have an interest in seeing a negotiated settlement soon.

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THOMAS PICKERING: The U.S. has no interest in a continued war, particularly given the fact that a continued war keeps open the door for the potential, down the road, for nuclear use.

KELEMEN: But many in Washington want to do more to punish Vladimir Putin and strengthen Ukraine's hand in these ongoing negotiations. That means more military aid and more sanctions, says Taylor of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

TAYLOR: The sanctions have been broader and more sustained, harsher, more durable than anybody expected, I think - or at least, probably, than Putin expected. And we play a big role in maintaining that.

KELEMEN: Russia wants sanctions relief as part of a negotiated deal. Taylor says that should only happen if Ukraine agrees. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.