Ukraine prez Zelenskyy ready to discuss all contentious issues with Russia
Almost two weeks have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. With soldiers and civilians, the truth has also become a major casualty, as the two sides share diametrically opposed details about their campaigns. As fighting intensifies near Kiev, in Kharkiv and in the Donbass, Russia has acknowledged the loss of around 500 of its troops and claimed that more than 12,000 Ukrainians have been killed. Ukrainians claim a similar number of Russian dead.
As Russia steps up its campaign, the civilian population is dying in large numbers. The UN confirmed the death of 474 civilians, while Ukrainian authorities said the number must be several times higher. The UN also admitted that the actual figures could be much higher and said a majority of civilian deaths were caused by heavy artillery shelling, multiple rocket launcher systems and airstrikes.
The main operations are carried out in or near major cities, and the humanitarian corridors for the withdrawal of civilians are almost non-functional. Both sides accuse each other of disrupting civilian evacuation agreements.
Foreign students, too, have become hostages to the war, forcing countries like India to undertake massive evacuation efforts. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it helped nearly 1.5 million foreign students escape.
Ukrainians are also trying to flee the conflict zone. According to the UN, as of March 7, more than two million people have left the country. Poland seems to be the preferred destination, followed by Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania.
Several analysts have predicted that if the conflict drags on for another two or three months, the number of refugees could reach 10 million. This would have serious consequences for Europe, which is just beginning to recover from the immigration crisis caused by the Syrian and Lebanese wars and the Covid-19 crisis.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who remains in Kyiv, stressed that Russian air superiority is proving to be the biggest challenge for his forces. He asked NATO to impose a no-fly zone and asked for more fighter jets. NATO and the United States have, however, ruled out the closure of Ukrainian airspace as this could lead to a direct conflict with Russia. The United States also rejected a Polish proposal to transfer its fleet of MiG-29s to Ukraine and in turn receive American F-16s to compensate for its loss. Ukraine, however, continues to receive considerable military and monetary support from the West.
Meanwhile, Russian ground troops are closing in on Kiev. Their main advance is from the north, along both banks of the Dnieper. In addition, Russia is trying to impose a blockade on the capital from the south and southeast. Despite their valiant response, Ukrainian troops are in retreat due to lack of air support.
“Kiev continues to fortify itself and prepare for the defense of the city,” said the city’s mayor, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. “All essential infrastructure, most grocery stores, hospitals and pharmacies are working.” The mayor assured that the humanitarian support systems are also fully functional.
Besides defending its key cities, Ukraine is also concerned about the security of its nuclear facilities. Oleg Korikov, who is in charge of the country’s nuclear safety, said Russian aggression not only risks causing radiological accidents and loss of control over radiation sources, but also poses unprecedented risks of a global nuclear disaster. He said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other international partners had yet to take any action on the matter.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said he was holding consultations to ensure the safety of Ukrainian nuclear facilities. He also plans to visit Ukraine to discuss new safeguards.
As the war continues, Putin reiterated his conditions for a ceasefire. He wants Ukraine to end its military campaign, enshrine political neutrality in its constitution, recognize the Russian occupation of Crimea and accept the rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, insisted on more dialogue and said Ukraine was ready to seek compromise, but was not ready to capitulate. Interestingly, perhaps for the first time, he publicly announced that Ukraine was ready to give up its ambition to join NATO. “As for NATO, I lost interest after we realized they weren’t ready to accept Ukraine. The alliance is afraid of a confrontation with Russia,” he said.
Zelenskyy also offered to discuss all contentious issues with Russia. “I think we can discuss and find a compromise on the points concerning the temporarily occupied territories and the unrecognized republics, which are not recognized by anyone except Russia. We can discuss with Russia the future of Crimea and Donbass,” Zelenskyy said.
He also spoke of a collective security agreement with all of Ukraine’s neighbours, including Russia, as well as with the main states of the world. He said the security guarantees would also apply to Russia, although he said he did not know who Russia was protecting itself from.
Zelenskyy has intensified his contacts with several world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But if that doesn’t work, he said he would bypass the leaders and appeal to the people. “I will speak directly to the people if their leaders do not do everything possible to stop this war. This is genocide,” he said. “There are things that are not decided in negotiations, which do not depend directly on us, but only on humanity.”