In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Ukrainian president expresses his fears about Moscow’s new war strategy.
As Russia refocuses its war aims on Ukraine’s eastern provinces after failing to take the capital, President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that the battle around the breakaway Donbass region will be crucial.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, he said: “If our forces in the Donbass cannot hold their positions, then the risk of a repeated offensive against Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast [province] is almost likely.
Russia recently reduced its attacks after failing to take the Ukrainian capital. He claimed that the first phase of his “military operation” was almost complete and that he was focusing on the complete “liberation” of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
But for observers in Western capitals, this announcement was a sign that Moscow had underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and that after a month of war, it was limiting its objectives.
However, Zelenskyy said he would not rule out a new offensive on the capital if Russia were to make military gains in the east.
The future of the Donbass region and Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, is at the heart of ongoing negotiations.
“We would like these territories returned to us and they [Russians] do not consider these territories to be part of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “That’s what we’re going to discuss.”
Zelenskyy added that, although he is ready to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the alleged Russian atrocities in Bucha, where a mass grave was discovered, and in other towns around the capital, signaled that “we we do not have a positive atmosphere in our negotiations”.
Moscow has denied widespread accusations that he was behind the Bucha murders.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has said it could abandon its quest for NATO membership and adopt a neutral status if the West provides it with binding security guarantees.
Among the countries likely to offer protection to Ukraine in the event of future aggressions are the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Turkey and Italy.
However, “this agreement would be impossible without the Russian Federation,” Zelenskyy added.
Ukraine is seeking security guarantees to bolster its defence, having given up its nuclear arsenal under the Budapest Memorandum, a series of agreements signed between 1993 and 1996.
Russia claims Ukraine violated the agreement and cited the alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as one of the reasons for its invasion.
Zelenskyy said that while Ukraine would not seek nuclear weapons in the future, he regretted Ukraine’s decision to give up its arsenal.
“These countries with nuclear weapons now, they are not captured,” the Ukrainian leader told Al Jazeera.
“We have weakened our status, our defence. We have weakened our population. This is what we gave. We sacrificed the lives of those people who died.
Zelenskyy said negotiations were the only way “to stop the bloodshed”, despite another round of talks in Turkey last month which brought little progress towards a peace deal.
“At the same time they are slowing down and I don’t see any real results from the negotiations yet,” he added.