Volodymyr Zelensky has said talks with Russia aimed at ending the war were beginning to “sound more realistic” but remained difficult as three European leaders visited Kyiv, the most senior foreign delegation in Ukraine since the start of the conflict.
The Ukrainian president’s remarks came as Vladimir Putin’s invasion, which has laid waste to frontline cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol and sent more than 3m refugees abroad, entered its 21st day with Russia’s land offensive still largely stalled.
Speaking during another night of Russian shelling, Zelensky gave no details of how Kyiv and Moscow’s negotiating positions had narrowed and said ongoing talks with Russia were “difficult”. But the president and his aides have increasingly played down Ukraine’s prospects of joining Nato, signalling alternative “security guarantees” may be a more pragmatic option.
“All wars end in agreements . . . As I am told, the positions in the negotiations sound more realistic,” Zelensky said in a video address. “However, time is still needed for the decisions to be in Ukraine’s interests. Our heroes, our defenders give us this time defending Ukraine everywhere.”
While some Russian negotiators have also noted positive momentum in talks, western leaders who have spoken to Putin remain downbeat. The Russian president said that Kyiv was “not showing a serious commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions” on Tuesday.
Moscow has called for Kyiv to formally renounce its aspiration to join Nato, which is included in Ukraine’s constitution, and to recognise the independence of two pro-Russian separatist statelets in the country’s east and Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it seized in 2014.
Russia’s military is still struggling to make significant advances, with the US noting its ground forces had made “limited to no progress” in recent days. Armoured units remain about 15km-20km to the north-west of Kyiv and about 20km-30km east of the capital. Russia has also faltered in its push to envelop Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city in the east of the country.
Ukraine’s military said on Wednesday that it had delivered “devastating blows” to Russian positions, in some cases via counter-attacks. The armed forces added that its aircraft continued to launch missile and bomb strikes on ground targets, including columns of equipment and clusters of occupying troops, highlighting Putin’s inability to gain control of the country’s skies.
Ukraine’s claims have not been independently verified.
Zelensky’s address was delivered shortly after he hosted the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, giving them a briefing on the military and humanitarian situation in his country. He thanked the “brave friends” for making the trip and showing solidarity, while pointedly noting “it can be dangerous here” because Ukraine had yet to receive support for a no-fly zone and was still waiting for fighter jets from Europe.
After the meeting, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, reiterated Warsaw’s desire to see Ukraine join the EU, a move that has been resisted by most member states despite Zelensky’s lobbying. “We will never leave you on your own, because we know that you are fighting not only for your own freedom and security, but also for us,” he said.
Despite the symbolism of the wartime visit, officials in Brussels expressed reservations about the trip, insisting it was not an official mission on behalf of the EU. The presidents of the European Council and the European Commission were informed about the travel plans last week, their spokespeople said.
Nato will hold an emergency summit next week in Brussels of the alliance’s 30 leaders, including US President Joe Biden, in a sign of the west seeking to maintain diplomatic pressure on Moscow and step up support for Ukraine.
“We will address the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our strong support for Ukraine, and further strengthening Nato’s deterrence and defence in response to a new reality for our security,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general.
According to humanitarian officials, large numbers of Ukrainian civilians are living in dire conditions.
In the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, where power, water, heating and other basic services were cut off in early March, civilian buildings have remained under relentless air bombardment. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Zelensky’s office, said in a post on social media platform Telegram that about 20,000 people had left the city in what appeared to be the largest evacuation of residents since it was surrounded.
Efforts to evacuate residents in Mariupol and other besieged cities via “humanitarian corridors” have proceeded slowly because of a lack of trust between the two sides. Ukraine has accused Russian troops of firing on evacuating people.