Photographer: Marko Durica/Reuters
Ukraine is ready to discuss “neutral status” in face-to-face talks with Russia in Turkey, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said.
“Our goal is obvious: peace and the restoration of normal life in our home state as soon as possible,” Zelenskiy said in a late-night video message that also laid out his negotiating red lines. “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are beyond doubt. Effective security guarantees for our state are mandatory.”
He used a video interview with independent Russian media outlets to signal his willingness to discuss the idea of Ukraine adopting a “neutral status” and also to make compromises on the status of the eastern Donbas region, in order to secure a peace deal. with Russia. But he said he was unwilling to discuss demilitarization and said Ukrainians would have to vote in a referendum to approve their country adopting a neutral status.
Related: The drone operators who stopped the Russian convoy heading to kyiv
Several rounds of talks have already failed to end the war sparked by the Russian invasion, now in its second month.
The latest round of negotiations, due to start on Monday, comes amid warnings that the situation in the defeated city of Mariupol is now “catastrophic” and Joe Biden sought to limit the fallout from his statement over the weekend that Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power.”
Asked on Sunday if he wanted to see Putin removed from office in Russia, he simply said “no.”
The president’s original comments were quickly pushed back by the White House and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who insisted the US had “no regime change strategy in Russia, or anywhere else.” The UK, Germany and France also distanced themselves from Biden’s seemingly unintended comment.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that he would not have used Biden’s words, adding that he saw his task as “first achieving a ceasefire and then the total withdrawal of [Russian] troops by diplomatic means.
He told France 3 broadcaster: “If we want to do that, we can’t scale either in words or actions.”
In his video address, Zelenskiy lamented a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and devastated numerous cities, amid questions about whether near-stalemate fighting has forced Moscow to moderate its demands.
The Ukrainian military claimed in its latest operational report that Russia had withdrawn troops from surrounding kyiv after suffering significant losses. Meanwhile, the UK Defense Ministry said Moscow was “effectively isolating Ukraine from international maritime trade” with its blockade in the Black Sea and continuing to carry out sporadic missile attacks on targets across Ukraine.
Concerns remain about Russia’s sincerity in the talks, with Ukraine’s intelligence chief Gen. Kyrylo Budanov suggesting that Putin is trying to split Ukraine in two, emulating the post-war split between North and South Korea. .
Budanov said he believed Putin had reconsidered his full occupation plan since he failed to quickly seize Ukraine’s capital kyiv and topple Zelenskiy’s government, raising the possibility of a protracted conflict.
Some 170,000 civilians remain trapped in Mariupol without adequate food, water or medicine as the southern port city is turning to “dust” from Russian shelling, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.
Zelenskiy claimed that Russia had taken 2,000 children from Mariupol, according to a press release published by the president’s office on Sunday night. “According to our data, more than 2,000 children were deported. Which means they were kidnapped. Because we don’t know the exact locations of all these children. There were children with and without parents. It’s a catastrophe, it’s horrible.”
Zelenskiy said the city remained blockaded by the Russian military, describing the situation as a humanitarian catastrophe. “Food, medicine and water cannot be delivered. Russian troops are bombing humanitarian convoys and killing the drivers.”
France, Greece and Turkey hope to launch a “humanitarian operation” to evacuate civilians within days, according to Macron, who has sought approval from Putin.
In other developments:
The UN estimates that at least 1,100 civilians have been killed and more than 10 million displaced in a devastating war that has lasted far longer than Moscow expected.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister has accused Russia of “irresponsible” acts around the occupied Chernobyl power plant that could send radiation to much of Europe, and urged the United Nations to send a mission to assess the risks in an update to its Telegram account.
Hollywood celebrities highlighted the cost to civilians with a moment of silence at Sunday’s Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, calling for support for “the people of Ukraine who are currently facing invasion, conflict and prejudice within their own borders.”