Local residents walk near buildings which were damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Mariupol. Reuters
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said late on Monday he was prepared to discuss a commitment from Ukraine not to seek NATO membership in exchange for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a guarantee of Ukraine’s security.
Zelensky said all issues would be on the table if Russia's Vladimir Putin agreed to direct talks to end the war, including contested Crimea and Donbas, but he warned his country would be "destroyed" before it surrenders.
"It’s a compromise for everyone: for the West, which doesn’t know what to do with us with regard to NATO, for Ukraine, which wants security guarantees, and for Russia, which doesn’t want further NATO expansion,” Zelensky said late Monday in an interview with Ukrainian television channels.
On the ground, there was no let-up in the violence, with Kyiv under a new 35-hour curfew after Russian strikes reduced a Kyiv shopping mall to rubble, and the Pentagon saying Moscow was stepping up air and sea operations.
President Joe Biden meanwhile warned that Putin was considering using chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine as he held talks with European leaders on what he called Moscow's increasingly "brutal tactics".
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv. File photo
He also repeated his call for direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Unless he meets with Putin, it is impossible to understand whether Russia even wants to stop the war, Zelensky said.
Nearly a month into the conflict, there has been little progress in talks between the two sides, and Zelensky has repeatedly urged direct discussions with his Russian counterpart.
He insisted again on Monday that a meeting with Putin "in any format" was needed to end the war.
Rescue teams retrieve belongings from a damaged building.
"If I have this opportunity and Russia has the desire, we would go through all the questions," he told Ukrainian journalists in an interview published by media outlet Suspilne.
"Would we solve them all? No. But there is chance, that we partially could -- at least to stop the war," he added.
Zelensky said he was even willing to discuss Russian-occupied Crimea and the breakaway Russian regions in Donbas, though he insisted he still believes they must be returned to Ukraine.
"At the first meeting with the president of Russia, I am ready to raise these issues," he said, adding that any agreement involving "historic" changes would be put to a national referendum.
The heavily bombarded and besieged southern port city of Mariupol.
"This is a very difficult story for everyone. Crimea and Donbas... And to find a way out, we need to take this first step, which I spoke about: security guarantees, the end of the war," he added.
He repeated his assertion that Ukraine "already understood" it could not join NATO but he added that his countrymen would not simply "hand over" the capital, the eastern city of Kharkiv, or the heavily bombarded and besieged southern port of Mariupol.
"Ukraine cannot fulfil Russian ultimatums," he said. "We should be destroyed first."
More than 3.3 million refugees have already fled Ukraine through its western border, with around 2 more million displaced inside the country.
He urged the West to give Ukraine tanks, planes and missiles to help fend off the Russian forces, which the Kyiv government said were increasingly targeting fuel and food depots.
Zelensky announced the sacking of Ukraine's ambassadors to Germany, India, the Czech Republic, Norway and Hungary and said new candidates were being readied for the positions. "This rotation is a normal part of diplomatic practice."
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