The Kremlin has said President Vladimir Putin is ready to send a delegation to Belarus for talks with Ukraine, as Russian forces closed in on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on the second day of Moscow’s invasion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday the Russian leader is “ready” to send a high-level delegation “for talks with a Ukrainian delegation” to Belarusian capital Minsk, which has previously hosted rounds of peace talks over the Ukraine crisis.
He said Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, told him that he would “create the conditions” for such a summit.
Russia has thousands of troops stationed in Belarus, and Ukraine said it was being attacked from several sides – including from Belarus.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had repeatedly called for talks with the Russian leader during a weeks-long diplomatic push in which Western countries tried to deter Putin from launching an attack.
Zelenskyy had made an initial proposal of talks in a speech addressed to Putin late on Wednesday, shortly before the Russian invasion.
He said at the time: “Ukraine’s security is linked to the security of its neighbours. That is why today we have to talk about security in the whole of Europe. That is our main goal – peace in Ukraine and the security of our citizens. For this, we are ready to talk to everyone, including you. In different formats and in any place.”
As Russian troops closed in on Kyiv on Friday, Zelenskyy issued a new statement urging talks.
“I would like to address the President of the Russian Federation once again. Fighting is going on all over Ukraine. Let’s sit down at the negotiating table to stop the deaths of people,” he said.
Kyiv has floated the idea that Ukraine could promise to take a neutral status on NATO membership in order to end the violence.
Putin urges Ukraine army to remove gov’t
Later on Friday, Putin called on the Ukrainian army to overthrow the government whose leaders he described as “terrorists” and “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”.
Putin also accused “Ukrainian nationalists” of deploying heavy weapons in residential areas of major cities to provoke the Russian military, without providing evidence, a claim that could fuel fears Moscow is creating pretexts for justifying civilian casualties.
In a televised address, he urged the Ukrainian military to “take power in your own hands”.
“It seems like it will be easier for us to agree with you than this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” he said, referring to Zelenskyy’s government.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, said Russia’s announcement that it is ready for talks with Ukraine in Minsk were made after Moscow called for Kyiv to “lay down its arms” and warned it could never recognise Zelenskyy’s government as democratic.
“It is worth reminding people that the current Ukrainian president was elected in 2019 with a landslide 73 percent share of the vote, so he was democratically elected,” Smith said.
“But clearly, the problem for the Kremlin is Zelenskyy, and whether they will be able to have talks while he remains in power is unclear,” he added.
Putin announced the start of a military operation against Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, when Moscow was asleep.
He did so after recognising two pro-Moscow separatist republics in eastern Ukraine as independent.
The West has imposed a barrage of international sanctions on Moscow in response, but Ukraine has said it should do more.
During a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin said that Russia’s military operation in Ukraine was necessary to protect people against “genocide”, the Kremlin said, an accusation that the West calls baseless propaganda.
The Kremlin said Xi respected Russia’s actions and was ready for close coordination and mutual support at the United Nations, where both are veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council.