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Zelenskyy holds out possibility of Ukrainian ‘neutrality’ as assaults continue

A Ukranian serviceman walks between rubble of the destroyed regional headquarters of kharkiv on March 27, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Russian and Ukrainian officials began arriving in Turkey on Monday for a new round of talks as their countries battled well into a fifth week of war, with missiles raining down outside several cities Monday morning, including the capital of Kyiv and the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

In a video address ahead of the negotiations, to be held in person in Istanbul, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his nation was seeking peace “without delay” and “the restoration of normal life.” He also said separately that he was willing to accept Ukrainian “neutrality,” one of Russia’s core demands. That would mean Ukraine letting go of aspirations to join NATO, even though pursuit of membership is enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Ukranian servicemen walk in the village of Mala Rogan, east of Kharkiv. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The talks are expected to open later Monday or possibly on Tuesday.

But after four prior rounds of negotiations — the last ones via video — the path to peace or even simply a cease-fire was unclear in a war that has killed more than 1,000 civilians, displaced millions of Ukrainians and made Russia an international pariah.

Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, who has been part of negotiations and spoken optimistically about them, struck a more somber tone Monday.

“Again, total missile strikes at Ukraine. Lutsk, Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Rivne. Every day, more and more rockets. Mariupol under carpet bombing,” he tweeted. “Russia no longer has a language, humanism, civilization. Only rockets, bombs and attempts to wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth. Does Europe really like it?”

A woman cries as she arrives in Kyiv after fleeing her home in the outskirts of the city on March 28, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Monday that, from Moscow’s point of view at least, “no significant progress” had been made in peace talks thus far.

In the last week, U.S. and British intelligence have said that Russia has scaled back its forces on the outskirts of Kyiv in the face of fierce fighting from Ukrainian defenses.

The British Ministry of Defense said in a daily report Monday that there was “no significant change” to Russian positions in Ukraine over the last day. “Ongoing logistical shortages have been compounded by a continued lack of momentum and morale amongst the Russian military,” it said.

But in the south and east, the ministry said Russia continued its all-out assault and attempt to capture the strategic southern port of Mariupol. Conquering the city would help Russian forces establish a corridor across Ukraine’s south to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 but which has no land connection to Russia.

In an interview with independent Russian journalists Sunday, Zelenskyy singled out the city as the site of some of the most horrific consequences of Russia’s invasion. Still under Ukrainian control, it has seen the majority of its 430,000 residents flee while those who remain struggle to find food and water in neighborhoods of rubble. How much longer the city can continue to hold out against relentless shelling and lack of humanitarian relief is increasingly open to question.

Mariupol is “littered with corpses — no one is removing them — Russian soldiers and Ukrainian citizens,” Zelesnkyy said in the interview. It was conducted in Russian with three journalists based outside Russia and one in Moscow.

He also held out the possibility of neutrality for Ukraine.

“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state — we are ready to go for it. This is the most important point,” Zelenskyy said, adding that the neutrality move would require a national referendum.

The Kremlin, which has banned media in Russia from describing its invasion as a “war,” warned news outlets not to publish Zelenskyy’s remarks.

In a sign of the ongoing stalemate, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Monday there would be no safe passage via negotiated humanitarian corridors for civilians seeking to flee battered cities.

Vereshchuk, who typically announces evacuation routes daily, blamed Russian “provocations” for the shutoff of safe corridors. Ukraine has accused Russia of blocking routes and abducting humanitarian volunteers, including members of the Red Cross.

In total, the war has created 3.7 million Ukrainian refugees and displaced millions more internally since Russia launched its invasion Feb. 24.

Russian forces have since been stuck outside Kyiv, without a single breakthrough in penetrating the heart of the capital. But they have kept up a steady assault by air, with more explosions reported on the city’s outskirts Monday morning and air-raid sirens sounding in the afternoon. It was unknown if missiles hit targets or if they were intercepted by Ukrainian forces.

In a sign of the city’s struggle to endure under stress, schools in Kyiv reopened Monday for online instruction but with what municipal official Valentyn Mondryivsky said was a new goal of providing kids with “psychological support” amid the war. Mondryivsky said homework was being limited in order to avoid putting additional stress upon students.

Tens of thousands of Kyiv residents have fled the city. Most evacuees around the country make their way to western Ukraine, which has suffered less violence than the south and east. Many eventually land here in Lviv before crossing the western border into Poland.

The Lviv area has been largely free from Russian assault, despite near-daily air-raid alarms, frequent funerals for soldiers and military checkpoints on roads leading to and from the city.

But it hasn’t been fully out of the crosshairs. Russian missiles have targeted western Ukraine four times since March 13, hitting military or fuel depots, including a strike on fuel tanks Saturday that was the closest attack to Lviv since the war began. Fires raged at the site for more than 14 hours before being extinguished. Authorities reported no fatalities and a handful of minor injuries.

The assault came as President Joe Biden, who last week completed a three-day European tour addressing the Ukraine crisis, was in neighboring Poland. Biden, who met with Ukrainian refugees Saturday, said in a Warsaw speech that Putin “cannot remain in power.”

The White House later walked back the remarks, which European leaders criticized as alluding to regime change and having the potential to further trigger an unpredictable Putin.

“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” the White House said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”


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