LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine is prepared to declare its neutrality and consider a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said ahead of another round of talks set for Tuesday on stopping the fighting. But he said only a face-to-face meeting with Russia’s leader can end the war.
While hinting at possible concessions, Zelenskyy also stressed that Ukraine’s priority is ensuring its sovereignty and its “territorial integrity” — preventing Russia from carving up the country, something Ukraine and the West say could now be Moscow’s goal.
Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining the Western NATO alliance, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelenskyy has also repeatedly stressed that Ukraine needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state — we are ready to go for it,” Zelenskyy said in an interview Sunday with independent Russian media outlets.
The Ukrainian leader has suggested as much before, but rarely so forcefully, and the latest remarks could create momentum for the talks scheduled to take place in Istanbul.
“We must come to an agreement with the president of the Russian Federation, and in order to reach an agreement, he needs to get out of there on his own feet … and come to meet me,” Zelenskyy said in an interview that Russia barred its media from publishing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that the two presidents could meet, but only after the key elements of a potential deal are negotiated.
“The meeting is necessary once we have clarity regarding solutions on all key issues,” Lavrov said in an interview with Serbian media. He accused Ukraine of only wanting to “imitate talks,” and said Russia needs concrete results.
In an overnight video address to his nation, Zelenskyy said Ukraine is seeking peace “without delay” in the talks.
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While saying “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt,” Zelenskyy also suggested compromise might be possible over Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting a separatist war for the past eight years. With its forces bogged down elsewhere, Moscow recently said its focus is now on securing the Donbas.
Zelenskyy also said that a peace agreement would have to be put to a referendum of Ukrainian voters, but that Russian troops would have to withdraw from the country first.
“A referendum is impossible in the presence of troops. No one will consider the referendum results legitimate if there are foreign troops on the country’s territory,” he said.
Zelenskyy said that a possible compromise could see Russia pull back its troops to areas where they had been before the invasion started on Feb. 24.
“I realize that it’s impossible to force Russia to fully leave the territory, it could lead to World War III. I understand completely. I’m fully aware of it,” he said. “That is why I’m saying, yes, this is a compromise: Go back to where it all started and then we’ll try to resolve the issue of Donbas, the complex issue of Donbas.”
It was not clear how a compromise on the Donbas would square with maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and Russia and Ukraine also remain far apart on other issues.
In other developments:
— Russia’s invasion has most Americans at least somewhat worried that the U.S. will be drawn directly into the conflict and could be targeted with nuclear weapons, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
— Germany’s energy minister said Monday that the Group of Seven major economies rejected a Russian demand that some countries pay in rubles for its natural gas exports. That demand appeared designed to try to support the Russian currency, which is under pressure from Western sanctions.
— Ukraine has banned reporting on troop and equipment movements not announced or approved by the military. Journalists who violate the law could face three to eight years in prison. In one case, a Kyiv resident was accused by the security services of posting images on TikTok showing Ukrainian military vehicles near a shopping mall that was later destroyed by a Russian missile strike.
Russian delegates to the Istanbul talks arrived Monday, Turkish media reported.
Earlier talks, both by video and in person, have failed to make progress on ending a more than month-old war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.
In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, the mayor said half the pre-war population of more than 400,000 has fled, often under fire, during weeks of shooting and shelling.
Alina Beskrovna, who escaped the city in a convoy of cars and made it across the border to Poland, said desperate people were melting snow for water and cooking on open fires “under shelling and bombs just because if you don’t, you will have nothing to eat.”
“There is no medicine. A lot of people are just, I think, starving to death in their apartments right now with no help,” she said. “It’s a mass murder that’s happening at the hands of the Russians.”
A fiercer than expected Ukrainian resistance — bolstered by weapons from the U.S. and other Western allies — has bogged Russian forces down. Russia has resorted to pummeling Ukrainian towns and cities with artillery and airstrikes.
In Stoyanka village near Kyiv, Ukrainian soldier Serhiy Udod said Russian troops had taken up defensive positions and suffered heavy losses.
He said “probably they thought it would be like Crimea,” which Russia annexed in 2014. “But here it’s not like in Crimea. We are not happy to see them. Here they suffer and get killed.”
Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Nebi Qena in Kyiv, Cara Anna in Lviv and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.