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Zelensky offers a neutral Ukraine for Russian withdrawal, but there are some big caveats

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a group of independent Russian journalists on Sunday that he is ready to discuss enshrining Ukraine as a neutral country, without NATO aspirations, as part of a peace deal with Russia, in return for ironclad security guarantees. 

"Security guarantees and the neutral, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to accept this. This is the most important point," Zelensky said. "This was the first point of principle for the Russian Federation, as I recall. And as far as I remember, they started the war because of this." He rejected even discussing Russia's demands that Ukraine be "de-Nazified" or demilitarized," and said "the issues of Donbas and Crimea must be discussed and solved" in peace talks. 

Zelenksy later told Ukrainians that in negotiations with Russia, "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are beyond doubt."

"On the face of it," Zelensky's offer "sounds like something of a breakthrough," the BBC's Jonah Fisher writes from Lviv. "But there are a number of important caveats." Zelensky made clear Western countries would have to guarantee Ukraine's security, neutrality would have to be put to a public referendum, and crucially, Russia would have to withdraw to its positions before its Feb. 24 invasion.

"Having fought so hard to gain ground, it's very hard to see Russia agreeing to this, particularly in the south and east," Fisher suggests. "And finally and most important of all, there's the unanswered question of what Russia actually wants from this war. Is it about security and Ukraine's NATO ambitions as was first claimed? Is it about more territory in eastern Ukraine? Or is President Putin determined to permanently disable Ukraine's ability to function as an independent sovereign nation?"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a meeting between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin would be "couterproductive" at this point, before the two countries have agreed on key issues. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators will hold peace talks in Turkey this week. And while the Kremlin is surely aware of Zelenksy's offer, it forbade any other Russian media organizations to broadcast any part of Zelensky's interview.