Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Italian state broadcaster RAI on Thursday that he was ready to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Russian response to Zelensky’s remarks was not entirely hostile.
Zelensky mentioned Ukraine and Russia “must find an agreement”, without an ultimatum, to end the Russian invasion.
“We have to think about the future of Russia. I, as President of Ukraine, say that they are our neighbours. There will be other presidents, other presidents and other generations,” he said, hoping for a better future.
Zelensky specifically dismissed the idea of giving Russia territory in the rebel Donbass region, or acknowledging the Russian occupation of Crimea, as sweeteners for a peace deal with Russia.
“We want the Russian army to leave our land, we are not on Russian soil. We will not save Putin’s face by paying with our territory. It would be unfair,” he said.
“Crimea has always had its autonomy, it has its parliament, but inside Ukraine,” he said of the peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.
“I never talked about recognizing the independence of Crimea, we will never recognize it as part of Russia,” he insisted, adding that Kyiv will also “never recognize the autonomy” of the Donbas separatists.
Zelensky propose a prisoner exchange that could give Ukraine a chance to save its forces trapped in the devastated city of Mariupol.
“We are ready to make an exchange with the Russians to save the living and bring our dead out of Azovstal. The civilians have already been evacuated, now there are the injured left, we don’t want to leave them there,” he said, referring to the steel mill in Mariupol where the Ukrainian defenders are entrenched.
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman mentioned Friday that Russia is not against a meeting between Zelensky and Putin.
“The situation has not changed in any way. You know very well the position of the Russian president: nobody rejects the idea of such a meeting out of hand, but it must be well prepared,” Peskov told a press conference.
“Preparations for such a meeting can and should continue in the form of the drafting of a corresponding document which would eventually be finalized at the summit level,” he said, hinting that Zelensky should put some concessions on Table.
“As we said before, there is no progress at the moment. Our conditions are well known. They were clearly formulated on paper and handed over to the Ukrainian side. No response,” Peksov said.
The Russian terms mentioned by Peksov include several elements that Zelensky dismissed as non-starters, including “independence” for separatist regions coveted by Moscow and Ukrainian recognition of Crimea as Russian territory. The Russians also insist that Ukraine must rewrite its constitution to permanently ban membership in NATO or similar international bodies.
Russia suffered another surprising defeat in Ukraine on Friday, suffering heavy casualties when the Ukrainians destroyed a pontoon bridge the Russians were using to cross the Siversky Donets River west of Severodonetsk.
According to the British Ministry of Defence, the Russians lost at least a full battalion battle group in the battle over the bridge. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense provided Pictures of the destroyed bridge which included the destroyed hulls of Russian armored vehicles stacked along the bank.
“Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a very risky maneuver and demonstrates the pressure on Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine,” the UK MoD noted.
“Russian forces failed to make significant advances despite the concentration of forces in this area after the withdrawal and redeployment of units from Kyiv and Chernihiv oblasts,” the ministry said.
Zelensky mentioned in his Thursday night address, Russia suffered an “obvious” strategic defeat in Ukraine, but “simply lacks the courage to admit it”.