Fresh round of talks to begin as Zelensky says Ukraine prepared to discuss adopting neutral status

Volodymyr Zelensky accused Vladimir Putin of dragging out negotiations and prolonging the conflict. PHOTO: AFP

LVIV (AFP, REUTERS) - Russia and Ukraine will restart face-to-face peace negotiations in Turkey on Monday (March 28), as Ukraine's leader said his country is ready to discuss Ukraine's neutrality status.

President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the resumption of over-the-table talks, saying they must bring peace “without delay”. He also signalled a willingness to compromise on the most sensitive topics.

The fate of Russian-occupied Donbass and Crimea, as well as fundamental disagreements about Kyiv’s alignment with the West, are again set to be the focus of negotiations.

With Russia’s much-larger military hampered and humbled by fierce Ukrainian resistance, the Istanbul talks will test whether battlefield setbacks have tempered Moscow’s demands.

A senior Ukrainian official said ahead of the talks that he did not expect any major breakthrough.

“I don’t think there will be any breakthrough on the main issues,” interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said on Monday.

Speaking to Russian journalists on Sunday, Mr Zelensky said Ukraine is prepared to discuss adopting a neutral status as part of a peace deal with Russia but such a pact would have to be guaranteed by third parties and put to a referendum. 

Mr Zelensky spoke Russian in the 90-minute interview conducted over a video call. Moscow authorities had pre-emptively warned Russian media to refrain from reporting it. 

Kyiv and Moscow have not met in person in weeks, but will hold three days of talks in Istanbul from Monday, according to David Arakhamia, a Ukrainian negotiator, lawmaker and Mr Zelensky's ally.

Several rounds of talks have already failed to end the war sparked by the Russian invasion, which is now in its second month.

About 20,000 people have been killed, according to Zelensky, 10 million have fled their homes and despite Russian military setbacks, several cities are still coming under withering bombardment.

Mr Zelensky said Russia’s invasion had caused the destruction of Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine, with damage worse than the Russian wars in Chechnya.

“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point,” Mr Zelensky said.

He said Ukraine refused to discuss certain other Russian demands, such as the demilitarisation of the country.

Speaking more than a month after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, Mr Zelensky said no peace deal would be possible without a ceasefire and troop withdrawals.

He ruled out trying to recapture all Russian-held territory by force, saying it would lead to a third world war, and said he wanted to reach a “compromise” over the eastern Donbas region, held by Russian-backed forces since 2014.

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Russia says it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine with the aim of demilitarising its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.

Mr  Zelensky also focused on the fate of the eastern port city of Mariupol, under siege for weeks. Once a city of 400,000 people, it has undergone prolonged Russian bombardment.

“All entries and exits from the city of Mariupol are blocked,” Mr Zelensky said.

“The port is mined. A humanitarian catastrophe inside the city is unequivocal, because it is impossible to go there with food, medicine and water,” he said.

“I don’t even know who the Russian army has ever treated like this,” he said, adding that, compared to Russian wars in Chechnya, the volume of destruction “cannot be compared”.

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Russia has denied targeting civilians in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for a failure to open humanitarian corridors.

Mr Zelensky pushed back against allegations from Moscow that Ukraine had curbed the rights of Russian speakers, saying it was Russia’s invasion that wiped Russian-speaking cities “off the face of the earth”.

He also dismissed as “a joke” allegations made by Russia that Ukraine had nuclear or chemical weapons.

Russian prosecutors said a legal opinion would be made on the statements made in the interview and on the legality of publishing the interview.

Commenting afterwards, Mr Zelensky said Russia destroyed the freedom of speech in its own country.

“The Russian censorship agency came out with a threat,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so tragic.”

Spanner in the works?

It remains to be seen whether talks will be hampered by US President Joe Biden’s shock declaration that Putin “cannot remain in power”.

The ad-libbed remark sparked outrage in Moscow and seemed to undercut Biden’s own efforts for the West to present a united front.

Asked by reporters on Sunday if he had been calling for regime change, Biden responded: “No.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also told media that was “not the objective of Nato, nor that of the US president”. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that any escalation “in words or action” could harm his efforts in talks with Putin to agree on evacuating civilians from Mariupol.

Neither intense diplomacy nor steadily mounting sanctions have persuaded Putin to halt the war.

Divided nation

Many in Ukraine remain suspicious that Moscow could use this week's talks as an opportunity to regroup and fix serious tactical and logistical problems in the Russian military.

Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Putin could still be aiming to divide the country in a Korea-like fashion – to “impose a separation line between the occupied and unoccupied regions”.

“After a failure to capture Kyiv and remove Ukraine’s government, Putin is changing his main operational directions. These are south and east,” he wrote on Facebook. “It will be an attempt to set up South and North Koreas in Ukraine.”

Russia has de facto control over the southern region of Crimea and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

The head of Ukraine’s Luhansk separatist region has indicated it may hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia.

Resistance in Mariupol is the main obstacle preventing Moscow from gaining unbroken control of land from the Donbas to the Crimea.

Counterattacks

But it is clear Russia’s original hopes of sweeping across Ukraine undeterred have faded.

Russian forces have made little progress in capturing key cities, prompting a shift to aerial bombardment of civilians.

With Western-supplied weapons, Ukraine’s fighters continue to hold off – or even push back – the Russian army.

In the southern town of Mykolaiv, under heavy assault for weeks, the bombardments appeared to be easing.

That was a welcome respite for locals like young Sofia, who suffered head injuries during shelling in early March near Mykolaiv.

“Now I can move my arms and legs a little. I still can’t get up without my mother’s help, but hopefully I can leave soon,” she told AFP.

A damaged building in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv on March 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The frontlines appeared to have receded from Mykolaiv, with a counteroffensive being mounted in Kherson, about 80km to the southeast.

Recent shelling killed two people in a village near Kherson, the only significant city the Russian army claims to have seized.

In Kherson itself, about 500 people took part in anti-Russian demonstrations on Sunday.

Kyrylo, a paramedic who spoke with AFP by telephone, said Russian forces dispersed the peaceful rally with tear gas and stun grenades.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said its forces had also recaptured Trostianets, a town near the Russian border.

It released images showing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians among heavily damaged buildings and what appeared to be abandoned Russian military equipment.

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