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Ukraine insists on territorial integrity during talks

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy takes part in an interview with some Russian media in Kyiv via video link
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in an interview with some Russian media via video link as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues March 27, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS

March 28, 2022

By Pavel Polityuk and Oleksandr Kozhukhar

LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – With Russia-Ukraine peace talks set to take place in Turkey this week, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insisted on his country’s territorial integrity, after earlier indicating he was ready for a compromise.

Zelenskyy said in his video address to the Ukrainian people late Sunday that his government will prioritize Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” at talks due to take place in Istanbul.

But in comments to Russian journalists earlier in the day, Zelenskyy struck a different tone, saying Ukraine is ready to adopt neutral status under a peace deal and compromise on the status of the eastern Donbass region.

In the video call, during which the Kremlin pre-emptively warned Russian media not to report, Zelenskyy said any deal would have to be guaranteed by third parties and subject to a referendum.

“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready for it,” he added in Russian.

Despite the looming talks, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming to conquer the eastern part of Ukraine.

“In fact, it’s an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the division of Korea after World War II. Zelenskyy has called on the West to provide Ukraine with tanks, planes and missiles to repel Russian forces.

In a phone call with Putin on Sunday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed to host the talks and called for a ceasefire and better humanitarian conditions, his office said. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators confirmed face-to-face talks would take place.

Top American officials on Sunday tried to clarify that the United States has no policy of regime change in Russia after President Joe Biden said at the end of a speech in Poland on Saturday that Putin “cannot stay in power”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden merely meant that Putin “cannot be authorized to wage war” against Ukraine or anywhere else.

After more than four weeks of conflict, Russia has failed to capture a major Ukrainian city and signaled on Friday it would scale back its ambitions to focus on securing the Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine’s for eight weeks army fight years.

A local leader in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic said Sunday the region may soon hold a referendum on joining Russia, just as happened in Crimea after Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.

Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to break with Ukraine and join Russia – a vote much of the world refused to recognize.

Budanov predicted that the Ukrainian army would repel Russian forces with a guerrilla offensive.

“Then the Russians are left with a relevant scenario of how to survive,” he said.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine also dismissed talks about a referendum in eastern Ukraine.

“All fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void and have no legal validity,” Oleg Nikolenko told Reuters.

“CRUEL AND SENSELESS”

Moscow says the goals for what Putin calls a “military special operation” include demilitarizing and “denazifying” its neighbor. Ukraine and its western allies call this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.

Ukraine has described previous negotiations, some of which have taken place in Russia’s ally Belarus, as “very difficult”.

The invasion devastated several Ukrainian cities, created a major humanitarian crisis and displaced an estimated 10 million people, almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population.

Tatyana Manyek, who crossed the Danube by ferry to Romania with other refugees on Sunday, said people in her hometown of Odessa were “very scared” but she would have stayed if it weren’t for her daughter.

“It would be very difficult to provide the child with basic living conditions. That’s why we decided to leave,” she said, holding a dog.

In his Sunday blessing, Pope Francis called for an end to the “cruel and senseless” conflict.

HUMANITARIAN CORRIDORS

Russia has deployed more military units to the border with Ukraine and is launching missile and air strikes on Ukrainian forces and military infrastructure, including in the city of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday evening.

Ukraine also raised concerns about the safety of the Russian-occupied decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident in 1986.

Russian forces have created a risk of damaging the containment vessel built around the station’s destroyed fourth reactor, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. She called on the United Nations to send a mission to assess the risks.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said Russia had started destroying Ukrainian fuel and food storage facilities. To confirm this, Russia said its missiles destroyed a fuel depot and a military repair facility near the western city of Lviv on Saturday.

The mayor of Slavutych, the town established and built after the 1986 accident to house the plant’s workforce, said early Monday that Russian forces that had taken the town over the weekend had now left.

Yuri Fomichev said in an online video post that the troops “completed the work they set out to do” and were gone. He originally said three people were killed in clashes.

The United Nations has confirmed 1,119 civilian deaths and 1,790 injured across Ukraine but says the real number is likely to be higher. Ukraine said on Sunday that 139 children have been killed and more than 205 injured in the conflict so far.

Vereshchuk said 1,100 people had been evacuated from frontline areas, including the southern city of Mariupol, after Ukraine and Russia agreed to set up two “humanitarian corridors”.

The encircled port, sandwiched between Crimea and eastern areas held by Russian-backed separatists, has been devastated by weeks of heavy bombardment. Thousands of residents live in basements with scarce water, food, medicine or electricity.

(Reporting by Reuters journalists in Mariupol, Natalia Zinets and Maria Starkova in Lviv, Jarrett Renshaw in Warsaw and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Guy Faulconbridge in London and Matthias Williams; writing by Aidan Lewis, Crispian Balmer, Lincoln Feast and Lawrence Hurley; Editor by Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates)

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Bobby Allyn

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