Kyiv—Ukraine said Wednesday it wants its security to be guaranteed by international forces and rejected proposals pushed by Russia for it to adopt a neutral status comparable to Austria or Sweden.
“Ukraine is now in a direct state of war with Russia. As a result, the model can only be ‘Ukrainian’ and only on legally verified security guarantees,” its top negotiator Mikhailo Podolyak said in comments published by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
He called for a legally binding security agreement, signed by international partners, who would “not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as they do today.”
NATO allies refused Wednesday to back a Polish call for the alliance to send an armed peace mission to Ukraine but vowed to keep supplying arms despite threats from Moscow.
Poland’s Vice Premier, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, suggested a peacekeeping deployment in Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid during a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday.
But NATO defense ministers were wary over the idea as they arrived in Brussels for urgent talks on Russia’s war against its neighbor.
“I’m afraid we’re still in too early stages to talk about that,” said Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren.
“First we have to have a ceasefire. We have to see a withdrawal from Russia. There has to be some kind of agreement between Ukraine and Russia, and I think the talks are still going on.”
She added: “It’s always good to think about what comes after that, but first, we need to achieve that.”
Russian forces upped the pressure on Kyiv Saturday and pummeled civilian areas in other Ukrainian cities, amid fresh efforts to deliver aid to the devastated port city of Mariupol.
Both Ukrainian and Russian officials on Saturday described the quickly worsening humanitarian situation as “catastrophic.”
In Moscow, the defense ministry described an unrelenting push on the ground, reporting that Russian forces had advanced 12 kilometers (seven miles) over “a broad front” during the day, without specifying exactly where.
It said pro-Russian separatists in the east had reached the edge of Severodonetsk, a city of 100,000.
Russian strikes have destroyed the airport in the town of Vasylkiv, south of Kyiv, the mayor said.
The northwest suburbs of the capital, including Irpin and Bucha, have endured days of heavy bombardment while Russian armored vehicles are advancing on the city’s northeastern edge.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the capital, described by a senior Ukrainian official Friday as a “city under siege,” was reinforcing defenses and stockpiling food and medicine.
The Kremlin earlier Wednesday said that a neutral Ukraine along the lines of Sweden or Austria was being discussed at talks with Kyiv to end three weeks of fighting in Ukraine.
“This is an option that is being discussed now and that can be considered as a compromise,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
His comments came after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said neutrality was taking centre stage at the talks. Russia’s lead negotiator had earlier introduced the proposal shot down by Ukraine.
Sweden officially is militarily non-aligned in peacetime and neutral in times of war, having ended its policy of neutrality in 1992 at the end of the Cold War.
It is not a member of NATO, but it has been a partner to the alliance for nearly 30 years. At the end of the Cold War, Sweden slashed its military spending but began reinvesting in its defense following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Russia and Ukraine have held several rounds of negotiations with the latest bout ending late Tuesday and Kyiv pointing to “fundamental contradictions”.
Russia’s foreign minister said earlier Wednesday that Moscow and Kyiv were “close to agreeing” on the wording of an agreement on neutrality.
Both sides had earlier raised hopes of a breakthrough, referring to documents that were close to being put to paper and signed.
Russia’s lead negotiator Vladimir Medinsky told reporters earlier Wednesday that talks were “slow and difficult” but said the Kremlin wants peace “as soon as possible.”
Other than neutrality for Ukraine, Medinsky said issues including the status of the Crimea as well as territories held for years by pro-Moscow separatists were being discussed.
Estonian Defence Minister Kalle Laanet said that a proposed peacekeeping mission was “one of the possibilities and, of course, we have to look at all the possibilities which can help Ukraine”.
But he said a deployment would need the backing of the United Nations Security Council where Russia holds a veto.
Britain’s defense minister Ben Wallace said he would need to “look at the details first before making any decisions about what happens”.
NATO has rebuffed pleas from Ukraine to intervene in the conflict, including imposing a no-fly zone to help halt Russian bombings. The US-led alliance says its direct involvement in non-member state Ukraine could spark a confrontation with Russia that may spill over into nuclear war.
NATO allies have instead been sending weapons to help Ukrainian forces to defend their country, especially vitally needed portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems.
Moscow has warned that any deliveries are legitimate targets for its military to strike.
But NATO defense ministers insisted they would keep arms flowing to Ukraine.
“We support their ability to defend themselves and we’ll continue to support them going forward,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.
Facing growing international condemnation, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday sought to turn the tables, slamming Kyiv for what he described as the “flagrant violation” of international humanitarian law and accusing Ukraine’s army of executing dissenters and using civilians as hostages.
The French presidency denounced his accusations as “lies.”
In a stream of video messages, Zelensky has urged Ukrainians to keep fighting and demanded his country’s allies do more.
On Saturday, he said Moscow was suffering “enormous losses”, before giving Ukraine’s first toll of around 1,300 troops killed so far.
US estimates put Russian fatalities at 2,000 to 4,000 while Moscow’s only official toll, announced last week, said 498 Russian troops had been killed.