Ukraine is prepared to discuss adopting a neutral status as part of a peace deal with Russia but such a pact would have to be guaranteed by third parties and put to a referendum, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says.
It came as the White House walked back an apparent gaffe by US President Joe Biden, when he declared in Poland at the weekend that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”.
On Monday (Australian time), the White House denied that Mr Biden was calling for regime change in Russia when he made the remark at a speech in Warsaw.
Instead, the Biden administration said the President meant Mr Putin shouldn’t wield power over Russia’s neighbours.
The Kremlin also responded, saying “that’s not for Biden to decide – the president of Russia is elected by Russians”.
The comments have caused some concern among US allies. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned a verbal escalation could prevent efforts to broker a ceasefire.
Mr Zelensky’s concession on Ukraine’s neutrality came hours later, in a speech to Russian journalists in a 90-minute video call. It was an interview that Russian authorities had pre-emptively warned local media to refrain from reporting.
He spoke in Russian throughout, as he has done in previous speeches when targeting a Russian audience.
Mr Zelensky said Russia’s invasion had caused the destruction of Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine and said the damage was worse than the Russian wars in Chechnya.
“Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point,” Mr Zelensky said.
He said Ukraine refused to discuss certain other Russian demands, such as the demilitarisation of the country.
Earlier, Ukraine’s intelligence chief said Russia wanted to split the country along a demarcation line like North and South Korea as Moscow’s initial plan for a swift takeover faced determined resistance.
After more than four weeks of conflict, Russia has failed to seize any major Ukrainian city and Moscow has signalled it will scale back its ambitions to focus on rebel-held areas.
Mr Zelensky said no peace deal would be possible without a ceasefire and troop withdrawals.
He ruled out trying to recapture all Russian-held territory by force, saying it would lead to a third world war, and said he wanted to reach a “compromise” over the eastern Donbass region, which has been held by Russian-backed forces since 2014.
Russia says it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine with the aim of demilitarising its neighbour.
Ukraine and its allies call this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
Mr Zelensky focused on the fate of the eastern port city of Mariupol, which has been under siege for weeks.
Once a city of 400,000 people, it has undergone prolonged Russian bombardment.
“All entries and exits from the city of Mariupol are blocked,” Mr Zelensky said.
“The port is mined. A humanitarian catastrophe inside the city is unequivocal, because it is impossible to go there with food, medicine and water,” he said.
“I don’t even know who the Russian army has ever treated like this,” he said, adding that, compared to Russian wars in Chechnya, the volume of destruction “cannot be compared”.
Mr Zelensky pushed back against allegations from Moscow that Ukraine had curbed the rights of Russian speakers, saying it was Russia’s invasion that wiped Russian-speaking cities “off the face of the Earth”.
He also dismissed as “a joke” allegations from Russia that Ukraine had nuclear or chemical weapons.
Earlier on Sunday, Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor told Russian media to refrain from reporting on the interview and said it had started a probe into outlets that had interviewed Mr Zelensky.
“Roskomnadzor warns the Russian media about the necessity of refraining from publishing this interview,” it said.
Russian prosecutors said a legal opinion would be developed on the statements in the interview and on the legality of publishing it.
A reporter from the Moscow daily Kommersant is among the Russian journalists who spoke with Mr Zelensky via video link. Journalists from the Meduza and Dozhd media outlets, whose sites are blocked in Russia, were also present.
Meduza published the interview despite the media regulator’s warning on Sunday.
The site can still be accessed through alternative internet connections and from abroad.