A neutrality agreement would shut the door on Ukraine joining NATO and many experts believe it is the only hope for ending the war.
Zelensky Outlines Diplomatic Proposals
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday detailed several potential diplomatic promises he could make under a peace agreement with Russia ahead of in-person negotiations in Turkey scheduled for Tuesday.
Perhaps the most significant proposed pledge he outlined in his remarks, which were made during a rare interview with independent Russian journalists, was the possibility that Ukraine could declare its “neutrality.”
Under the foreign policy of neutrality, a country essentially agrees to be neutral or non-aligned in future wars, though it still maintains the ability to protect itself if attacked. One of the most classic examples of this is Switzerland, though there are others.
Neutrality varies in practice and it remains unclear exactly how it would look in Ukraine. Experts largely agree that the principle would involve some kind of promise in which Russia agrees to respect Ukraine’s territory.
Such an agreement, however, would also effectively end Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO. Zelensky, for his part, has already acknowledged that his NATO dreams are unlikely, but many experts say an official declaration of Ukrainian neutrality is necessary to end the war.
Still, the Ukrainian leader also said Sunday the question must be put to a national referendum after Russian forces withdraw, and again reiterated that Ukraine will need certain security assurances as part of any deal.
War Continues on Multiple Fronts, But With Possible Shift Ahead
Also during the Sunday interview, Zelensky stated that Ukraine was ready to make a compromise on the eastern Donbas region, which is partially controlled by Russian separatists.
That specific remark comes as intelligence from both the Ukrainian military and the Pentagon has indicated that the Kremlin may be shifting its efforts to control the Donbas region. On Sunday, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence accused Russia of trying to split the country in two in order “to create North and South Korea in Ukraine.”
Still, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry also said during a media briefing Monday that there is no evidence that Russia is going to drop its effort to surround the capital of Kyiv, where large explosions were reported earlier in the day.
Notably, Ukrainian officials have also claimed a counteroffensive around the capital is making gains. They said that Russian forces have been pushed out of several towns, but fighting continues on multiple fronts.
In the southern port city of Mariupol, which is located between the separatist region and Crimea, Ukrainian forces persist in their battle to prevent a takeover. The city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, told reporters Monday that Ukraine is still holding on to power but noted that Russian forces were entering “deeper into the city.”
Boychenko accused the Russian military of committing “genocide” and called for a complete evacuation of the roughly 160,000 residents that remain in the city, which previously was home to a population of around 400,000. On Monday, top Ukrainian officials said they will close all humanitarian corridors for safety reasons as Russia persists in its shelling and bombing.
Despite the continued resistance, defense analysts said Mariupol could fall to Russia in just a matter of days. On Monday, the U.K. Defense Ministry also said that Russia has “gained most ground” near Mariupol.
President Zelensky said during his Sunday interview that he offered soldiers defending the city the option to retreat, but they declined because they did not want to abandon the remaining civilians, the dead, and the wounded.
Biden Sparks Backlash With Putin Ad-Lib
As the situation on the ground persists, U.S. President Joe Biden is coping with a war of words following controversial remarks Saturday.
While delivering a high-stakes speech in Warsaw, Poland the American leader took direct aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin in comments White House officials said were unscripted.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said.
If taken literally, the president’s words would signal a reversal of the currently-held U.S. policy of not pushing for regime change. Top leaders in Congress and the Biden administration quickly walked back that statement, making clear the U.S. was not seeking a regime change.
“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement to reporters Sunday. “In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question. It’s up to the Russian people.”
Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, echoed that sentiment in remarks to CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, where she insisted that “the U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia. Full stop.”
Still, Biden’s ad-lib was widely condemned by many — including top Senate Republicans and French President Emmanuel Macron — as being incendiary, playing into Russia’s hands, and further risking the collapse of U.S.-Russia relations.
“I wouldn’t use this kind of words,” the French leader said Sunday, adding that if allies want a ceasefire “we mustn’t escalate, neither with words nor with actions.”
Biden personally addressed the backlash during a press conference Monday where he said he stood by his remarks and rejected the criticism that he misspoke. The president argued that he was just expressing his personal outrage about Putin being in power and not announcing a policy change.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin. Nobody believes that.”
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (NPR)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”