Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine should accept it will not become a member of Nato, hinting at a potential key concession to Russia, which demanded such a guarantee before launching its deadly invasion three weeks ago.
Speaking to military officials of the UK-led joint expeditionary force in a video message on Tuesday, the Ukrainian president, who has won plaudits around the world for his conduct during the war, said it was a “truth” that it would not join the military alliance.
“Ukraine is not a member of Nato. We understand that. We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. It’s a truth and it must be recognised,” Mr Zelensky said.
On the eve of war, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded assurances that Ukraine would never become a Nato member. Moscow has repeated the demand since its troops entered Ukraine and also called on Kyiv to sign a neutrality agreement and recognise the independence of pro-Russian republics in the east of the country. Some though have argued that Russia’s Nato demand was a pretext for invasion.
Ukraine has consistently asked for Nato protection during the war, notably in the form of a no-fly zone, but this was the first time Mr Zelensky has conceded that Kyiv will not join the alliance.
Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he would meet Nato leaders in Brussels next week, while Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg made another warning that Russia could use chemical weapons in the conflict.
Responding to the Ukrainian president’s comments, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “What’s important that is it is for the Ukrainian government to decide what they think is suitable. They should have no decisions imposed upon them.
“Certainly, we do want a peaceful solution to be to be reached but it must be on terms the Ukrainian government agree to and they should not be forced into it. It remains the prime minister’s view that Nato membership is the right of democratic countries, but it’s for those countries to decide.”
The developments came as peace talks between Ukraine and Russia continued, and the leaders of three European Union countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, both Nato members, and Slovenia – paid a surprise visit to Kyiv. The leaders travelled by train ahead of a meeting with Mr Zelensky.
Despite the diplomatic efforts, Russia’s pummelling of Ukraine continued on Tuesday, the 20th day of the war. The bombardment of Kyiv was stepped up with apartment buildings and a subway station targeted. Mr Zelensky said the strikes killed dozens of people. The shelling ignited a huge fire in a 15-story apartment building in the west of the city and spurred a frantic rescue effort.
“Yesterday we extinguished one fire, today another. It is very difficult,” a firefighter who gave only his first name, Andriy, said outside an apartment building, tears falling from his eyes. “People are dying, and the worst thing is that children are dying. They haven’t lived their lives and they have already seen this.”
Resident Volodymr Trophimov said he watched as a building was hit. “I watched out of the window, and it crashed into the building and all the windows were smashed,” he said.
When Russia launched the war, fear of an imminent invasion gripped the Ukrainian capital, and residents slept in subway stations or crammed onto trains to flee. But as the Russian offensive bogged down, Kyiv saw a relative lull.
Now, fighting has intensified on the city’s outskirts in recent days. Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced a 35-hour curfew extending through Thursday morning.
Almost 100 children have now been killed in the war, said Ukrainian officials.
In the city of Mariupol, another 2,000 cars fled hellish conditions along a humanitarian corridor in the biggest evacuation yet from the desperately besieged seaport. It may have come too late for many though.
One official claimed that up to 20,000 people have been killed by the continual Russian bombardment of the seaport city and that bodies were lying in the streets unattended and unable to be buried.
There were also reports last night that Russian soldiers had taken some 400 staff and patients hostage at an intensive care hospital in the city.
“We received information that the Russian army captured our biggest hospital … and they’re using our patients and doctors like hostages,” said Mariupol mayor Sergei Orlov.
The Red Cross also said it was working to evacuate people from the northeastern town of Sumy near the Russian border in about 70 buses.
The number of people who have fled Ukraine since the start of the war has now reached 3 million, said officials.
In Moscow, the TV journalist who held an anti-war poster on live state TV news, Marina Ovsyannikova, was fined 30,000 roubles (£215) for her protest. There were further reports of other Russian journalists quitting last night.
Meanwhile, Fox News journalists Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman, and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a producer, were killed when the vehicle they were travelling in was hit by fire on the outskirts of Kyiv, the network said.