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Zelenskyy offers Ukraine neutrality ahead of peace talks

Ukraine and Russia are set to resume ceasefire talks but the prospects of an end to the hostilities any time soon remain very uncertain, as Russia keeps pounding Ukrainian cities in a war that continues to escalate.

(CN) — With peace talks set to resume, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested his country could stay out of NATO and he seemed willing to concede some Ukrainian territory to Russia.

Two days of ceasefire negotiations are to take place Tuesday in Istanbul but the prospects of a deal remain very uncertain with neither side wanting to be seen as surrendering and making big concessions while fighting in Ukraine seems to have reached a bloody stalemate.

Russia agreed for the talks to take place in Istanbul, a minor but perhaps significant shift because previous negotiations took place in Belarus, a Russian ally. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to establish himself as a key mediator in ending the war. Turkey is a NATO member but it has close ties with both Russia and Ukraine.

In an interview on Sunday with Russian outlets critical of the Kremlin, Zelenskyy said he would consider holding a referendum on NATO membership.

“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are prepared to go through with it,” Zelenskyy said in the interview, as reported by Politico.

He added that he was prepared for compromise on the disputed Donbas region and said trying to recapture all the territory currently held by Russian troops could lead to World War III. But he added that any deal would have to be based on a withdrawal of Russian troops from everywhere outside of Donbas.

Russia’s media watchdog forbid the interview from being made available in Russia, saying it needed to be vetted. Four of the five news organizations Zelenskyy spoke to have been restricted in Russia, including the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Monday, Novaya Gazeta said it was suspending publication until the end of the Ukraine war because it had received another warning from Roskomnadzor, the media watchdog agency. The newspaper won the Nobel Prize Peace Prize last October for its courageous journalism. Since the invasion, it has run afoul of censorship guidelines, including a ban on calling the invasion of Ukraine a “war.” Journalists in Russia must call it instead a “special military operation,” the term used by Putin when he launched the invasion on Feb. 24, upending world politics and the global economy and bringing war back to Europe.

Despite his comments in Sunday's interview, Zelenskyy’s position on peace talks is unclear. In a video message late Sunday, he vowed that Ukraine will not cede any territory to Russia and that Ukraine is winning the war.

A soldier stands on a bridge destroyed by the Ukrainian army to prevent the passage of Russian tanks near Brovary, Ukraine, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

He also pointed to Roskomnadzor's decision to block the publication of his interview with Russian journalists as more evidence of why Ukrainians are resisting Russian occupation.

“They destroyed freedom of speech in their state, they are trying to destroy the neighboring state,” he said. “They portray themselves as global players. And they themselves are afraid of a relatively short conversation with several journalists.”

Zelenskyy's government too has imposed restrictions on the press and opposition parties. Under his watch and before the invasion, pro-Russian news outlets were banned and he recently outlawed a number of opposition political parties because of their alleged pro-Russian rhetoric, even though they'd condemned Putin's invasion. He signed a law on Sunday making it a crime for anyone, including foreign journalists, to detail information about Ukrainian troop and equipment movements without government approval.

On Monday, Alexander Rodnyansky, a Zelenskyy presidential adviser, confirmed to the BBC that Ukraine will not give up territory, or what Kyiv terms its “territorial integrity.”

“Clearly, they cannot sustain this war for years and their morale is so low they can’t even keep up their supplies and logistics,” Rodnyansky said about Russia. “If you ask the people who live in these areas, they wouldn’t want to live in Russia. How can we leave them? Let alone the whole idea of slicing up our country.”

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On Monday, fighting continued to rage in and around several Ukrainian cities. The worst humanitarian situations are in the encircled cities of Mariupol in the south and Chernihiv north of the capital Kyiv.

Ukrainian officials said about 5,000 people have been killed in Mariupol and that about 160,000 residents remain trapped in the city of roughly 430,000 people. Mariupol has been the scene of intense fighting and images show that most of the city’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed.

Russian forces claim they have nearly taken all of the city and corned most Ukrainian forces inside a large steelworks plant called Azovstal. Russian soldiers are battling hardcore fighters with Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion, a militia group with members who espouse neo-Nazi ideology.

The situation is very dire in Chernihiv too. The city is mostly encircled by Russian troops and it has come under heavy artillery attacks, according to news reports and residents. It is reportedly without running water, electricity and gas. Unlike Mariupol, though, it hasn't been the scene of street fighting.

Vladyslav Chaus, the governor of Chernihiv region, said about 200 people have died but bodies are being found under rubble too. The city has a population of about 280,000 but about half left at the start of the war, he said.

The brutality of the war hangs over the peace talks.

Ukraine has accused Russia of taking tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees “hostage” by forcing them into Russian territory. When Ukrainian soldiers recaptured Irpin, a town near Kyiv, international reporters told harrowing stories of efforts to evacuate frail and elderly people trapped in their homes for a month after they were unable to escape the fighting.

Reports of civilians getting bombed and killed have become all too common. Ukrainian artillery, too, is accused of continuing to shell civilian areas under Russian control in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank through the town of Trostsyanets, Ukraine, about 250 miles east of the capital Kyiv, on Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The United Nations human rights agency reports that it has confirmed the deaths of at least 1,151 civilians and that 1,842 others have been wounded. The U.N. refugee agency says nearly 3.9 million Ukrainians have fled the country.

Ukraine’s economy minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, estimates the war up to this point has caused $565 billion in damage to infrastructure, lost economic growth and other factors. About 4,970 miles of roads and thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed, she said.

On Monday, there were gruesome revelations that Russian prisoners likely were shot in the legs by their Ukrainian captors, as captured on videos and posted on social media sites.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych condemned the alleged shootings.

Russia's exclusion from the Western world continues to intensify with Finland shutting down regular train service with St. Petersburg, the last rail link between Russia and the European Union. Heineken beer became the latest company to say it is leaving the Russian market.

Meanwhile, reports of harassment and attacks on Russians and their property in Germany and elsewhere are growing, adding to the hurt felt by Russians that they are victims of long-running anti-Russian sentiment.

Germany took the step to make it a crime to display the letter “Z” in a fashion that purports to support Russia's invasion. Russian army vehicles are distinguished with the letter “Z” and Russians both at home and abroad have shown their support for the war by displaying the letter.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused “the collective West” of waging “a total hybrid war” on Russia.

“The goal is not hidden: to destroy the Russian economy, undermine domestic political stability and, ultimately, significantly weaken Russia, push us, as they directly state to the margins of international life,” Lavrov said.

He said the West was enacting “state banditry” as it confiscates the private property of Kremlin-linked oligarchs and seizes Russian state assets in Western banks, including its foreign currency reserves.

“This is a turning point in the historical development of civilization,” Lavrov said at a meeting of United Russia, Putin's political party.

After a trip to Europe that saw the NATO alliance showing unity in the face of Russia’s invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden found himself needing to clarify that he was not seeking regime change in Russia.

On Saturday, Biden ended an impassioned speech in Warsaw about the Ukraine war and the barbarity of Putin’s invasion by saying that the Kremlin leader “cannot remain in power.”

It apparently was an unscripted statement, but it was immediately seen as shifting U.S. policy toward seeking Putin’s removal.

On Sunday, when asked by reporters if he was seeking regime change in Russia, Biden said, “no.” His brief reply came as he got into a presidential limousine after attending Sunday Mass.

On Monday, Biden gave a fuller answer during a news conference.

“I’m not walking anything back,” Biden said, describing how he felt upset after meeting Ukrainian refugees, including children, who had suffered because of Putin's “brutality.”

“I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing moral outrage that I felt and I make no apologies for it,” Biden said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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