Russian and Ukrainian negotiators will resume face-to-face peace talks as soon as Monday, probing whether a near-stalemate in fighting has forced Moscow to temper its demands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the new negotiations, saying he hoped they would bring peace “without delay,” and lamented a month-long Russian invasion that has already killed thousands and devastated numerous Ukrainian cities.
The new talks are set to start in Turkey on either Monday or Tuesday.
A Ukrainian delegate in talks with Russia on ending the war, Davyd Arakhamia, said in a Facebook post the countries would meet in Turkey beginning Monday. However, the Russians then announced the talks would start Tuesday.
Zelensky is desperate to halt the bombardment of cities like Mariupol, where officials said the situation is “catastrophic.”
About 170,000 civilians remain trapped in Mariupol without adequate food, water or medicine, as the southern port city is being turned “into dust” by Russian shelling, according to Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
“I’ve talked to the defenders of Mariupol today. I’m in constant contact with them. Their determination, heroism and firmness are astonishing,” Zelensky said in a video address, referring to the besieged southern city that has suffered some of the war’s greatest deprivations and horrors. “If only those who have been thinking for 31 days on how to hand over dozens of jets and tanks had 1% of their courage.”
France, Greece and Turkey are hoping to launch a “humanitarian operation” to evacuate civilians within days, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought an okay from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Several previous rounds of peace talks have failed to halt the fighting or overcome fundamental disagreements about Kyiv’s alignment with the West and Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
But with Russia’s much-larger military humbled by fierce Ukrainian resistance and forced to abandon efforts to capture Kyiv, there is renewed hope for talks.
“Our goal is obvious — peace and the restoration of normal life in our native state as soon as possible,” Zelensky said in the late-night message that also set out his negotiating red lines.
“Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt. Effective security guarantees for our state are mandatory,” he said.
Zelensky has previously indicated he is “carefully” considering a Russian demand of Ukrainian “neutrality.” That would include keeping Ukraine nuclear-free, he said during an interview with several independent Russian news organizations.
“This point of the negotiations is understandable to me and it is being discussed, it is being carefully studied,” Zelensky said.
He told the reporters that the issue of neutrality – and agreeing to stay out of NATO – should be put to Ukrainian voters in a referendum after Russian troops withdraw. He said a vote could take place within a few months of the troops leaving.
Russia quickly banned the interview from being published. Roskomnadzor, which regulates communications for Moscow, issued the ban, saying there could be action taken against the Russian media outlets that took part, which included “those that are foreign media outlets acting as foreign agents.”
Russia-based outlets appeared to comply with the ban although the interview was published abroad.
Zelensky responded by saying Moscow was afraid of a relatively short conversation with journalists. “It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic,” he said, according to the Ukrainian news agency RBK Ukraina.
Many in Ukraine remain suspicious that Moscow could use the talks as an opportunity to regroup and fix serious tactical and logistical problems in the Russian military.
Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Putin could still be aiming to divide the country in a Korea-like fashion — to “impose a separation line between the occupied and unoccupied regions.”
“After a failure to capture Kyiv and remove Ukraine’s government, Putin is changing his main operational directions. These are south and east,” he wrote on Facebook. “It will be an attempt to set up South and North Koreas in Ukraine.”
Russia has de facto control over the southern region of Crimea and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
The head of Ukraine’s Lugansk separatist region has indicated it may hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia.
Resistance in besieged Mariupol is the main obstacle preventing Moscow from gaining unbroken control of land from the Donbas to the Crimea — its residents have recounted harrowing scenes of destruction and death.
But it is clear Russia’s original hopes of sweeping across Ukraine undeterred have faded.
Russian forces have made little progress in capturing key cities, prompting a shift to aerial bombardment of civilians.
With Western-supplied weapons, Ukraine’s fighters continue to hold off — or even push back — the Russian army.
In the southern town of Mykolaiv, under heavy assault for weeks, the bombardments appeared to be easing, with a counteroffensive being mounted in Kherson, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the southeast.
Recent shelling killed two people in a village near Kherson, the only significant city the Russian army claims to have seized.
In Kherson itself, about 500 people took part in anti-Russian demonstrations on Sunday.
Kyrylo, a paramedic who spoke with AFP by telephone, said Russians dispersed the peaceful rally with tear gas and stun grenades.
The Ukrainian defense ministry said its forces had also recaptured Trostianets, a town near the Russian border.
It released images showing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians among heavily damaged buildings and what appeared to be abandoned Russian military equipment.