Zelenskyy: Ukraine ready to discuss neutral status to reach Russia peace deal

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is open to a neutral status for his country and a “compromise” on the contested Donbas region as part of peace negotiations with Russia, he said in an interview with several Russian outlets on Sunday.

“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are prepared to go through with it,” Zelenskyy told Russian news organizations Meduza, Kommersant, Novaya Gazeta and TV Rain, speaking in Russian throughout the interview.

For Ukraine, neutrality would mean dropping its long-held ambitions to join NATO, making it a buffer state between Russia and the Western military alliance. Moscow has been angry for years about the eastward expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union.

Zelenskyy attached strict conditions for these possible concessions: Russian troops would have to withdraw to pre-February 24 positions and any peace deal would be put to the Ukrainian people in a referendum, which could take up to a year to organize. The referendum is a strict condition, Zelenskyy said, arguing Ukrainian must have a say in any potential territorial changes that would require constitutional revisions.

In the interview, Zelenskyy went on to question the Russian negotiators’ understanding of the Ukrainian system, saying they “weren’t up to speed […] to put it mildly.”

The Ukrainian president ruled out trying to recapture all Russian-held territory by force, warning it could lead to World War III. He expressed a willingness to pursue a “compromise” over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, parts of which Russian forces have held since 2014.

While Ukraine’s neutrality is a key demand from Moscow, Zelenskyy refused to give ground in other areas, such as the demilitarization of the country. Zelenskyy also called on the West to provide more weapons and tanks to fend off invading Russian forces.

Zelenskyy, however, made clear in another video posted overnight that a peace pact was not in sight yet, underlining “how far we are from the Russian Federation.” In remarks that clashed with his assertions to the Russian journalists, he also repeated that the priorities in the negotiations were “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Russia’s communications watchdog banned the media organizations from publishing their interview, which Zelenskyy said was evidence of Moscow destroying the freedom of speech in the country.

In a separate interview with the Economist, Zelenskyy said that some of his “partners” are “using Ukraine as a shield,” explaining how he sees the differing viewpoints of Western allies toward the war, with two disparate main strands.

On one hand, Zelenskyy said, there are those who “don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia,” even “if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives.” On the other hand, other countries want the war to finish quickly “because Russia’s market is a big one … [and] their economies are suffering as a result of the war,” Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskyy also slammed French President Emmanuel Macron for being “afraid of Russia,” and for failing to support Ukraine militarily, while praising U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “a leader who is helping more.”

Zelenskyy noted Germany’s approach as “trying to be balanced,” though primarily focused on “how the situation affects their own country.” He said Germany was “making a mistake,” slamming the legacy of Germany’s ambiguous relationship with Russia.

The Ukrainian president’s remarks come as Russia and Ukraine officials on Monday begin three days of in-person talks in Turkey.

Meanwhile, cities across Ukraine continue to be heavily shelled, while the humanitarian situation is deteriorating in Mariupol and Volnovakha.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

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