Zelensky Offers Putin Route Out of Ukraine War: 'It's a Compromise'

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has put forward a way out of the conflict that has been devastating his country for 33 days.

In an interview with Russian independent media, he suggested Russian troops retreat to the position they held before February 24 in the contested eastern region of Donbas, "where it all began," and from there the two countries can try to solve "the complex issue of Donbas."

Speaking in Russian via Zoom on March 27, Zelenksy said he was ready to meet some of the Kremlin's demands in future talks between the two countries' diplomats, on condition that any change be put to a referendum and that third parties commit to ensure the safety of Ukraine.

Asked about his intentions for the future and about how he envisions a military victory for Ukraine, Zelensky said: "I understand that it is impossible to force Russia to completely liberate the territory, it will lead to World War III. I understand everything perfectly and am aware of [this]."

"That's why I say: It's a compromise. Return to where it all began, and there we will try to solve the issue of Donbas, the complex issue of Donbas."

The separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk declared themselves "People's Republics" in the spring of 2014. Their independence was recognized by the Kremlin just before Moscow's troops launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian troops in the Donbas since 2014, when Russia also seized Crimea from Ukraine.

The region is densely populated, with 6 to 7 million people living there before the war broke out. It is estimated that millions of people have left the region since Russian troops invaded the country, with some fleeing to Ukraine and others to Russia.

Last Friday, despite clear evidence that the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn't going according to the Kremlin's plan, Moscow announced that the first phase of its "special military operation" in Ukraine was mostly complete and the campaign would re-focus on completely "liberating" the Donbas region.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, Russian-backed separatists control 93 percent of Luhansk and 54 percent of Donetsk. ​

On Sunday, Ukraine's top intelligence official Kyrylo Budanov suggested that Russia is redirecting its troops to eastern and southern Ukraine with the goal of dividing the country into occupied and non-occupied territories.

A new round of negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian diplomats should take place this week in Turkey. In his latest address to the nation, Zelensky said he will be seeking a peace deal "without delay."

"Our priorities in the negotiations are known," he said. "Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt. Effective security guarantees for our state are mandatory. Our goal is obvious—peace and the restoration of normal life in our native state as soon as possible."

In the same 90-minute interview with Russian independent media, Zelenksy said he was ready to discuss a neutral status for Ukraine as part of a peace deal, but it would have to be put to a referendum and guaranteed by third parties.

Russian media censors have vetoed the publication of the interview and have vowed to investigate the four journalists involved, the Financial Times reported.

The journalists are Ivan Kolpakov, the editor of Latvia-based Russian-language news website Meduza; Vladimir Solovyov, a reporter for Moscow-based newspaper Kommersant, freelance Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar; and Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor of independent television channel TV Rain, which temporarily suspended its operations on March 3 after its website was blocked by Russian media censors.

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Update 03/29/22, 5:58 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include the fact that Newsweek has sought comment from Russian authorities.