Ukrainian Zelensky will offer a declaration of neutrality to Russia for peace “without delay”

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine could declare neutrality and offer security guarantees to Russia to secure peace “without delay,” President Volodymyr Zelensky has said ahead of another scheduled round of talks — though he declared that a face-to-face meeting with Russia’s leader could end the war.

While hinting at possible concessions in an interview with independent Russian media, Zelensky stressed that Ukraine’s priority was to ensure its sovereignty and “territorial integrity” – to prevent Russia from carving up the country, which that Ukraine and the West say could now be Moscow’s target.

But, Zelensky added: “Guarantees of security and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state – we are ready to go.”

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The Ukrainian leader has suggested the same before, but rarely with such force, and the latest remarks come as the two sides announced talks would resume on Tuesday.

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine give up hope of joining the Western NATO alliance, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelensky said the question of neutrality, which would keep Ukraine out of NATO or other military alliances, should be put to Ukrainian voters in a referendum after the withdrawal of Russian troops.

Zelensky has also long stressed that Ukraine needs its own security guarantees as part of any deal.

“We have to come to an agreement with the President of the Russian Federation, and to come to an agreement, he has to get out of there on his own … and come and meet me,” he also said in an interview that Russia bans its media from publishing.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that the two presidents could meet, but only after negotiating key elements of a possible agreement.

“The meeting is necessary once we have clarity on solutions to all key issues,” Lavrov said in an interview with Serbian media. He accused Ukraine of only wanting to “imitate the talks”, but said Russia needed concrete results.

In an overnight video address to his nation, Zelensky said Ukraine was seeking peace “without delay” in talks due to begin in Istanbul.

The location was agreed upon after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, the Turkish leader’s office said. Negotiators are expected to arrive on Monday.

Earlier talks, both by video and in person, have failed to bring an end to a more than month-old war that has killed thousands and driven out more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including nearly 4 million from their country.

The war has led Western countries to impose punitive sanctions on Russia, squeezing its economy. Putin recently said Russia would require “unfriendly” countries to pay for its natural gas exports only in rubles – a move economists say appears designed to try to prop up Russia’s crashing currency.

Germany’s energy minister said on Monday that the major Group of Seven economies had rejected the request. Robert Habeck told reporters that “all G-7 ministers were in full agreement that this (would be) a unilateral and clear breach of existing contracts”.

With the Russian offensive stalled in many areas, its troops resorted to destroying Ukrainian cities with rockets and artillery in a bitter war. Heavy fighting has raged on the outskirts of kyiv, but Russian troops remain miles from the city center as their aim to quickly encircle the capital falters

In the village of Stoyanka near kyiv, Ukrainian soldier Serhiy Udod said Russian troops took up defensive positions and suffered heavy casualties.

He said “they probably thought it would be like Crimea”, which Russia annexed in 2014.

“But here it’s not like in Crimea. We are not happy to see them. Here they suffer and get killed.

A fiercer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance — bolstered by weapons from the United States and other Western allies — was credited with bogging down Russian forces.

But Zelensky made increasingly exasperated calls for Western countries to do more, including sending in fighter jets, accusing political leaders on Sunday of lacking courage. The NATO alliance countries were reluctant to give Zelensky some of the most powerful equipment he demanded for fear of starting a much larger war.

In fact, Russia’s invasion worries at least most Americans that the United States is being drawn directly into the conflict and could be a target of nuclear weapons, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Moscow now says its goal is to secure the entire eastern region of Donbass, which has been partially controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, accused Russia of seeking to split Ukraine in two, drawing the comparison with North Korea and South Korea. He predicted that Ukrainian-led guerrilla warfare would derail these plans.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has banned reporting on troop and equipment movements not announced or approved by the military. Journalists who break the law risk three to eight years in prison.

The restrictions come after Ukrainian authorities criticized social media users who posted photos or videos of troop movements. In a widely publicized case, a Kyiv resident was accused by security services of posting images on TikTok showing Ukrainian military vehicles near a shopping mall that was later destroyed by a Russian missile strike. Russia alleged that Ukraine used the site to resupply rocket artillery.

Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Nebi Qena in Kyiv, Cara Anna in Lviv, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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