By Pavel Polityuk and Oleksandr Kozhukhar
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine is willing to become neutral and compromise over the status of the eastern Donbass region as part of a peace deal, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday, even as another top Ukrainian official accused Russia of aiming to carve the country in two.
Zelenskiy took his message directly to Russian journalists in a video call that the Kremlin pre-emptively warned Russian media not to report, saying any agreement must be guaranteed by third parties and put to a referendum.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it,” he said, speaking in Russian.
But even as Turkey is set to host talks this week, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was aiming to seize the eastern part of Ukraine.
“In fact, it is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the division of Korea after World War Two. Zelenskiy has urged the West to give Ukraine tanks, planes and missiles to help fend off Russian forces.
In a call with Putin on Sunday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed to hold talks this week in Istanbul and called for a ceasefire and better humanitarian conditions, his office said. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators confirmed that in-person talks would take place.
Top American officials sought on Sunday to clarify that the United States does not have a policy of regime change in Russia, after President Joe Biden said at the end of a speech in Poland on Saturday that Putin “cannot remain in power”.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden had simply meant Putin could not be “empowered to wage war” against Ukraine or anywhere else.
After more than four weeks of conflict, Russia has failed to seize any major Ukrainian city and signalled on Friday it was scaling back its ambitions to focus on securing the Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for the past eight years.
A local leader in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic said on Sunday the region could 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 that much of the world refused to recognise.
Budanov predicted Ukraine’s army would repel Russian forces by launching a guerrilla warfare offensive.
“Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians, how to survive,” he said.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson also dismissed talk of any referendum in eastern Ukraine.
“All fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void and will have no legal validity,” Oleg Nikolenko told Reuters.
‘CRUEL AND SENSELESS’
Moscow says the goals for what Putin calls a “special military operation” include demilitarising and “denazifying” its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a pretext for unprovoked invasion.
Ukraine has described previous negotiations, some of which have taken place in Russian ally Belarus, as “very difficult”.
The invasion has devastated several Ukrainian cities, caused a major humanitarian crisis and displaced an estimated 10 million people, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
Tatyana Manyek, who crossed the Danube by ferry into Romania on Sunday with other refugees, said people in her home city of Odesa were “very afraid” but she would have stayed were it not 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, clutching a pet dog in her arms.
In his Sunday blessing, Pope Francis called for an end to the “cruel and senseless” conflict.
CALL FOR WEAPONS
Zelenskiy demanded in a late-night television address on Saturday that Western nations hand over military hardware that was “gathering dust” in stockpiles, saying his nation needed just 1% of NATO’s aircraft and 1% of its tanks.
Western nations have given Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles as well as small arms and protective equipment, without offering heavy armour or planes.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said Russia had started destroying Ukrainian fuel and food storage centres. Appearing to confirm that, Russia said its missiles had wrecked a fuel deposit on Saturday as well as a military repair plant near the western city of Lviv.
Ukraine was mounting small counter-offensive actions as Russian forces try to encircle its forces in eastern Ukraine, a Ukrainian presidential advisor said.
The United Nations has confirmed 1,119 civilian deaths and 1,790 injuries across Ukraine but says the real toll is likely to be higher. Ukraine said on Sunday 139 children had been killed and more than 205 wounded so far in the conflict.
Ukraine and Russia agreed two “humanitarian corridors” to evacuate civilians from frontline areas on Sunday, including allowing people to leave by car from the southern city of Mariupol, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The encircled port, located between Crimea and eastern areas held by Russian-backed separatists, has been devastated by weeks of heavy bombardment. Thousands of residents are sheltering in basements with scarce water, food, medicine or power.
(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; Editing by William Mallard, Gareth Jones, Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)