Updated 11:30pm EDT
The Ukrainian leader said he is open to "compromise" on the country’s Donbas region. Zelensky then said he would prioritize the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country was willing to “compromise” over the country’s Donbas region. A core Russian demand has been that Ukraine gives up its territorial claim to the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, Zelensky then appeared to contradict himself saying he would prioritize the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine.
The earlier statement was first time Zelensky has signaled a willingness to negotiate about giving up territory. Last week, he told CNN, “There are compromises for which we cannot be ready as an independent state. Any compromises related to our territorial integrity and our sovereignty."
His later statement is more similar to the posture he took in his CNN interview. The mixed messages come before planned talks with Russia in Turkey.
Moscow demands that Ukraine recognize the Crimea Peninsula as Russian territory and the independence of the Donbas republics. President Joe Biden was asked about the Russian demand on Thursday. Biden said he did not think Kyiv would have to take that step, but it was up to Ukraine.
Zelensky stated his openness to compromise on a 90-minute call with Russian media. He also restated his offer to declare neutrality if Ukraine gets security promises. "Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point," Zelensky said.
If Zelensky is serious about ceding some territory, it’s unclear if Russia would agree to a proposal that would have a third party – likely the US and its NATO allies – treaty-bound to go to war in Ukraine or how Kyiv plans to get another country to commit its defense.
Another factor is Ukraine’s inability to control the Donbas. Since war broke out in 2014, the governments in Luhansk and Donetsk have been outside of Kyiv’s authority and often relied on Russia for support.
Last week, Russia announced a new phase in its "special military operation." It said it would focus on securing the Donbas. The head of the Luhansk government, Leonid Pasechnik, believes a vote about joining Russia will happen soon.
"I think that in the near future, a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic, during which the people will… express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation," said Pasechnik.