As Russia refocuses its war goals on Ukraine’s eastern provinces after failing to take the capital, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned the battle over the breakaway Donbas region will be crucial.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, he said: “If our forces in Donbas won’t be able to hold their positions, then the risk of a repeated offensive against Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast [province] is almost probable.”
Russia recently scaled back its attacks after failing to take the Ukrainian capital. It had claimed that the first phase of its “military operation” was mostly complete and that it was focusing on completely “liberating” eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
But to observers in Western capitals, the announcement was a sign that Moscow had underestimated Ukrainian resistance and that after a month of war it was limiting its objectives.
However, Zelenskyy said, he did not exclude a new offensive on the capital if Russia were to make military gains in the east.
The future of the Donbas region and of Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, has been at the heart of ongoing negotiations.
“We would like these territories to be returned and they [Russians] are not considering these territories as part of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “This is what we are going to discuss.”
Zelenskyy added that, while he is prepared to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, alleged Russian atrocities in Bucha, where a mass grave has been found, and in other towns around the capital, signalled that “we don’t have a positive climate in our negotiations”.
Moscow has denied widespread accusations that it was behind the killings in Bucha.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has said it could abandon its quest to join NATO and adopt neutral status if the West provides it with binding security guarantees.
Among the countries that may offer Ukraine protection in case of future assaults 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 boost its defence, after renouncing its nuclear weapons arsenal as part of the Budapest Memorandum, a series of agreements signed between 1993 and 1996.
Russia claims Ukraine has breached the agreement and cited the alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as one reason for its invasion.
Zelenskyy said that while Ukraine would not seek to obtain nuclear weapons in the future, he regretted Ukraine’s decision to give up its arsenal.
“Those countries with the nuclear weapons now, they’re not being captured,” the Ukrainian leader told Al Jazeera.
“We have weakened our status, our defence. We have weakened our population. This is what we have given away. We have given away 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 agreement.
“At the same time, they are slowing down and I don’t see any actual results of the negotiations as of now,” he added.