Ukraine is ready to declare neutrality, abandon its drive to join NATO and vow not to develop nuclear weapons if Russia withdraws troops and Kyiv receives security guarantees, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on the eve of a new round of peace talks in Turkey.
Speaking in Russian, Zelensky told a group of Russian independent journalists on Sunday that Kyiv was prepared to meet Moscow on some of its demands on condition that the changes were put to a referendum and third parties promised to protect Ukraine.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state – we’m ready to do that. That’s the most important point [ . . . ] they started the war because of it, ”Zelensky said.
Russia’s media censor ordered the four reporters not to publish the interview and vowed to investigate them – even though it had already blocked a site that one of them edits and shut down a TV station formerly run by another.
Zelensky said Ukraine’s main goal was to end the war as quickly as possible and make Russia’s forces withdraw to their positions before Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24.
He said he was “99.9 per cent sure” the Russian president had thought Ukraine would be waiting for the invasion with “flowers and smiles” – going so far as to send troops with parade dress for a victory celebration in Kyiv apparently planned for the third or fourth day of the war.
But Zelensky said Ukraine was prepared to hold separate discussions on the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and the eastern Donbas border region, where more than 14,000 people have died in a slow-burning separatist conflict involving Russian proxies that broke out soon afterwards .
“I understand it’s not possible to make Russia completely leave the territory – that’ll lead to world war three,” Zelensky said. “That’s why I’m saying this is a compromise. Go back to where this all started and then we’ll try to solve the difficult Donbas issue. ”
Delegations from Ukraine and Russia are set to meet on Monday in Ankara for three days of talks aimed at ending Putin’s month-long invasion.
But Zelensky played down comments by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, that Ukraine and Russia were close to a deal on four points. He said peace could only be achieved through a meeting with Putin.
“So we meet, we make a deal, and that’s enough – we sign a deal, stamp it, or sign it in blood. That’s enough to start the troop withdrawal process. The troops must be withdrawn, everyone signs the guarantees, and that’s it, ”Zelensky said.
In exchange for giving up its desire to join NATO – an aspiration reflected in Ukraine’s constitution – Kyiv wants the new agreements to be more like Nato’s Article 5 in requiring the country’s protectors to come to its aid if it is attacked.
Zelensky said he wanted to put the decision to a referendum, which he said would take “several months”, before embarking on constitutional changes that would require at least a year of work.
“The guarantors will not sign anything if we have troops [on our territory]. That’s why I think we could finish the war quickly. It’s just Putin and his entourage who are dragging it out, ”Zelensky said. “Who’s going to talk about anything if troops are still there? Who’s going to sign anything? Nothing will happen, it’s impossible. ”
He added that Ukraine refused to discuss two other Russian demands at the talks: “denazification” and “demilitarization”. These were “completely incomprehensible things”, he said.
Ukraine and its western backers fear Russia may be using the talks as a smokescreen while it regroups its forces for a new offensive and builds up new battle groups near the border.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington will provide an extra $ 100mn in civilian security assistance to Ukraine to help civil law enforcement and protect government infrastructure.
In a statement, Blinken said the money would help continue to secure personal protection equipment, tactical and communications equipment, medical supplies and armored vehicles for Ukraine’s border guard service and its national police force.
Fierce fighting also continued to rage in the east and north, with Ukraine claiming it had clawed back territory along supply routes near Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.
Russia stepped up its missile attacks on fuel and food depots for a third day. Ukraine reported strikes in Lutsk, Zhytomyr and Rivne in the west and Kharkiv in the east as well as “carpet bombing” on Mariupol, the south-eastern port city where the war’s worst clashes have erupted and which has been almost destroyed.
Zelensky said Ukraine was prepared to consider giving the Russian language protected minority status if it received analogous guarantees from Moscow on Ukrainian. But he said Putin had done “irreparable damage” to the Russian language in Ukraine through brutal assaults on mainly Russian-speaking cities such as Mariupol.
“These Russian-speaking cities are the ones that have been wiped from the face of the earth. And these families, ”Zelensky said.
He said 90 per cent of the buildings in Mariupol, which previously had a population of 400,000, had been destroyed, “but they were at least multistorey, so you can imagine what was there”. Smaller towns on the other hand had been completely destroyed.
“I do not know who else the Russian army ever treated like this,” the president said, adding that the destruction was worse than during Moscow’s two campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s.