Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that he is prepared to hold direct talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin amid mounting fears that Moscow's invasion and the West's response have spiraled into a dangerous proxy war between nuclear-armed powers.
"We must find an agreement," Zelenskyy said in an interview with an Italian media outlet as deadly ground fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces continues to intensify. Ukrainian and Western officials claimed Friday that Russian troops have begun pulling back from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, as Moscow focuses its assault on the eastern part of the country. Zelenskyy stressed Thursday that while he is ready for talks with Putin—who has thus far declined calls for face-to-face negotiations—he would not accept "ultimatums" from the Russian side.
"As president, I am ready to speak with Putin, but only with him, without his intermediaries and on the terms of dialogue, and not ultimatums," Zelenskyy said. "We want the Russian army to leave our land. We aren't on Russian soil," he added. "We won't save Putin's face by paying with our territory. That would be unjust."
The Ukrainian president's comments came as peace negotiations remained at a standstill and as Western governments, including the United States, continued pumping billions of dollars worth of heavy weaponry into the war zone. In the coming days, the U.S. Senate is expected to send to President Joe Biden's desk a package containing another $40 billion in military and economic aid package for Ukraine.
Last week, the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda reported that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used a visit to Kyiv last month to pressure Zelenskyy to abandon the prospects of peace talks with Russia.
Based on unnamed sources from Zelenskyy's inner circle, the Ukrainian media outlet's report appeared to vindicate concerns that the West is more interested in inflicting damage on Russia than securing a diplomatic resolution to the war, which is now in its third month.
"Every day the war continues, the risk of its spreading grows," Andrew Murray of the U.K.-based Stop the War Coalition wrote in a recent analysis. "Other states could be drawn in by accident or design, and clearly Washington and London are seeing how far they can push their involvement without triggering wider war. Miscalculation is all too easy to envisage."
"The alternative—and urgent—perspective is of a ceasefire and peace talks," Murray added. "The outline of an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality, without membership of NATO but with some form of international guarantees, seems to exist."
In an op-ed for Common Dreams on Friday, Peace Action president Kevin Martin wrote that "the tragic, illegal war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine should end now, with a ceasefire and then a comprehensive peace agreement."
"It could be based on the previously negotiated 2015 Minsk II agreement, which is quite detailed and balanced in seeking to resolve territorial, political, cultural, and linguistic disputes," Martin argued. "What makes this war so ghastly is the eventual outcome was widely known and achievable before Russia invaded, namely Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership, and territorial, legal and political accommodations over Crimea and the Donbas region."
"Not one more Ukrainian civilian, or Ukrainian or Russian soldier, needs to die or be maimed for life in this senseless slaughter," he added.