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Rescuers work at a site of a warehouse storing products burned after shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine March 16, 2022.STRINGER/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says his country needs to accept that it will never join the NATO military alliance, a comment that could open the door to substantive negotiations with Russia after three weeks of brutal warfare.

Mr. Zelensky made the remarks Tuesday in a virtual address to a gathering of European leaders, but the real audience was likely in the Kremlin, which has said it will end the war if Ukraine agrees to drop its bid for NATO membership, demilitarizes and becomes a neutral state.

“Ukraine is not a NATO member. We understand that. We are reasonable people. We’ve heard for years about the supposedly open doors, but we’ve also heard already that we can’t enter,” Mr. Zelensky said, referring to NATO’s policy of welcoming applications from any European state seeking to join. “This is the truth, and we have simply to accept it as it is.”

Volodymyr Dubovyk, an international relations scholar who was based in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa until the war, called the comments “a bitter acceptance of reality,” as well as a message to Moscow. He pointed out that Mr. Zelensky did not make a formal commitment to abandoning his country’s pursuit of NATO membership. But “Moscow can still try and frame this as their victory, and they probably will,” he said.

Speaking on the day that the Prime Ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia paid a symbolic visit to Kyiv, Mr. Zelensky called NATO the “strongest alliance in the world.” However, he said, “some of the members of this alliance are hypnotized by Russian aggression” – a reference to fears in some Western capitals that intervening in the war to help Ukraine could provoke a wider conflict.

Petro Burkovskyy, a senior fellow at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a think tank that before the war was based in Kyiv, said the remarks were “the maximum Zelensky can publicly say about the possibility that Ukraine won’t seek NATO membership if it is needed to secure peace after the war.” But he pointed out that Mr. Zelensky did not mention changing Ukraine’s Western orientation, another of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands.

A fourth round of ceasefire talks was held Tuesday between Russian and Ukrainian delegations. Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said talks were “difficult” but would continue Wednesday. “There are fundamental contradictions. But there is definitely room for compromise.”

Russia, meanwhile, continued its assault on Kyiv and other cities. At least five people were killed in the capital after an apartment building on the western side of the city was struck by shelling just before dawn. Russian warplanes and artillery also continued to bombard Kyiv’s northern suburbs, including Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, which have already seen some of the worst fighting of the war.

As Russian forces continued to slowly push deeper into Kyiv, Mayor Vitaly Klitschko declared a 35-hour curfew that would begin at 8 p.m. local time Tuesday and last until 7 a.m. Thursday. “Today is a difficult and dangerous moment,” Mr. Klitschko said.

About half of Kyiv’s prewar population of three million people have left the capital since the war began. Those who remain have been forced to repeatedly take cover in bomb shelters as the city has endured attack after attack over the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, the death toll from a Monday attack on a television tower in the western Ukrainian region of Rivne reportedly rose to 19.

Thousands of people have died in fighting around the country, and almost three million have fled since Feb. 24, when Mr. Putin ordered his country’s forces to invade its neighbour.

Ukraine’s military reported overnight strikes on the war-battered cities of Kharkiv, in the northeast, and Mykolaiv, in the south, as well as the besieged Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, where more than 2,500 people have reportedly died so far.

Civilians continued to flee Mariupol Tuesday, with a convoy of 2,000 cars managing to escape a day after 160 vehicles were able to leave. Local authorities said another 2,000 cars were waiting for their chance to evacuate.

Warning: Video contains graphic content. Firefighters work to control fires and rescue residents of an apartment building in the Sviatoshynskyi district of Kyiv, Ukraine after it was hit during Russia's bombing of the city. At least five civilians have been killed in the attack.

The Globe and Mail

Volodymyr Matsokin, the deputy mayor of Izyum, a city of 45,000 people southeast of Kharkiv, said the situation in his city was “no better than Mariupol.”

“There is no water, no light, heat, food, medicine, communication,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “There is no one to bury the dead. Medical care is not provided. It is not possible to bring in enough humanitarian aid. There is no way to take people out.”

Russia says its invasion – which it officially calls a “special military operation” – was necessary to demilitarize Ukraine and prevent it from joining NATO. The West has punished Moscow with unprecedented sanctions that have seen major credit-card companies withdraw from the Russian market. Most European countries, Canada and the United States have closed their skies to Russian carriers.

Kremlin-controlled media have stuck to a false narrative that Russia is targeting only military infrastructure and far-right groups in Ukraine. In a rare instance of reality breaking through the propaganda, producer Marina Ovsyannikova staged a one-woman protest Monday by walking behind the anchor during the main evening newscast on state-run Channel One and shouting: “Stop the war!” She also held up a sign that said, “Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Ovsyannikova was convicted of calling for illegal protests and fined about $360.

Russia’s war aims are believed to also include replacing Mr. Zelensky, who has repeatedly called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over his country to stop aerial bombardments and save civilian lives.

“I want to insist that it’s very important to close the sky,” said Serhiy, a soldier based in Odesa, which is preparing for a Russian assault that Mr. Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have warned is imminent. The normally bustling city centre is now a semi-deserted maze of checkpoints and tank traps, and Ukrainian armoured vehicles have taken up defensive positions near strategic points in and around Odesa.

All of that would be more effective if Russia’s decided advantage in the skies were neutralized. “We could defend all of Ukraine if the skies were closed. It would significantly improve our efforts to protect Odesa,” Serhiy said. The Globe and Mail is not publishing his last name because Ukrainian soldiers are prohibited from making such information public.

Military analysts say Russia cannot mount a sustained operation against Odesa unless it first captures Mykolaiv, which lies about 130 kilometres to the east, along the supply route to Russian-controlled Crimea. On Tuesday, Vitaliy Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region, said Russian troops had been pushed back slightly in recent fighting.

“You can be 99-per-cent sure that Mykolaiv region will continue to hold back the advance of the Russian troops. There is the Bug River, which they need to force their way across in order to advance,” Mr. Kim said in a nationally televised interview. “We will not give up the bridges to the invaders.”

He said 80 people had been wounded in the city Monday, including two children.

  • Damaged vehicles and buildings in Kharkiv city center in Ukraine.Pavel Dorogoy/The Associated Press

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