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A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces assists a woman to cross the street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 16.Andrew Marienko/The Associated Press

Ukraine and Russia are signalling progress on a peace deal that would see Kyiv agree to international neutrality in exchange for the Kremlin ending its invasion, even as Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces are continuing to slaughter civilians.

Moscow on Wednesday said its negotiators and Ukraine’s, meeting over videoconference, are working on an arrangement in which Ukraine would adopt a status similar to those of Sweden and Austria. Both countries are members of the European Union and maintain militaries, but are not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the two sides were “close to agreeing” on the wording of a deal. “Neutral status is now being seriously discussed along, of course, with security guarantees,” he said.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a negotiator on the Ukrainian side, said any agreement would also have to include “legally verified security guarantees” that ensure Western countries would protect Ukraine in case of a future invasion.

“[This] would mean that the signatories of guarantees do not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as it is today,” he said on Telegram.

It was unclear how seriously to take the Russian claims they were ready to make a deal, given that they have repeatedly lied throughout the invasion. Last week, for instance, Mr. Lavrov said his country “did not attack Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin also appeared to undermine prospects for peace at a Wednesday cabinet meeting. He claimed the war was “going to plan,” despite Russia’s repeated defeats on the battlefield and failure to capture a single major Ukrainian city. He also lashed out at supposed Western sympathizers within his country.

“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” he said.

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The Drama Theatre damaged after shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine.The Associated Press

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, meanwhile, said Wednesday that Russia had bombed the Drama Theatre in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians were taking cover. It was not immediately clear how many were killed and injured.

The local council said the air strike had blocked the door to the theatre’s bomb shelter, potentially trapping people inside. But rescuers cannot get there because of continuous Russian shelling in the southern port city. Satellite images from Monday showed the word “children” written in Russian in large white letters on the plazas on either side of the building.

“Another horrendous war crime,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted, along with a photo of the building’s burning ruins. “Russians could not have not known this was a civilian shelter.”

Ukrainian officials said Russia had also fired on a convoy of people evacuating Mariupol, which is encircled by Russian forces. In Chernihiv, they said Russian troops shot and killed 10 people waiting in line for bread.

In a dramatic video link speech to the U.S. Congress Wednesday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, the transfer of fighter jets and other military equipment to his country, and for Washington to cut off all trade with Russia.

The Ukrainian President invoked the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, quoted Martin Luther King Jr., and showed clips of Russian forces bombing hospitals and killing Ukrainian children.

“We need you right now. Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. … Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, your independent territories, into battlefields, when innocent people were attacked from the air,” he said. “I have a dream – these words are known to each of you. Today, I can say, ‘I have a need. I need to protect our sky.’”

Beijing denies Russia requested military equipment for Ukraine invasion as U.S., China meet

Wearing a green military T-shirt and sitting at his desk in Kyiv next to a Ukrainian flag, Mr. Zelensky asked for war planes and S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles. He also called on the U.S. to put every Russian politician currently in office under sanctions and to stop all American companies from doing any business in Russia.

“Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to save people? … If this is too much to ask for, we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defence systems we need,” he said. “All American ports should be closed for Russian goods. Peace is more important than income.”

Mr. Zelensky also proposed a new international alliance, to be called the U-24, that would dispatch military and economic aid to countries under attack or suffering other humanitarian crises within 24 hours. He said such an organization was needed because the ones we have “unfortunately don’t work.”

It was unclear whether the proposal was meant as the vehicle to guarantee the security of a neutral Ukraine as envisaged in peace talks.

U.S. lawmakers to prod reluctant Biden administration to facilitate plane transfers to Ukraine

Switching from Ukrainian into English, Mr. Zelensky made a direct appeal to U.S. President Joe Biden: “I wish you to be leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”

Mr. Zelensky has been on a virtual tour of Western summits and parliaments, including Canada’s on Tuesday. Since Mr. Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, targeting the banking sector and international trade. Mr. Zelensky has said it is not enough and has pleaded with countries to do more.

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U.S. President Joe Biden responds to a question about Russian President Vladimir Putin in the East Room of the White House.Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press

Mr. Biden and the leadership of NATO have already ruled out Mr. Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone. Enforcing one would mean NATO planes shooting down Russian fighters, launching a war between nuclear-armed countries.

Mr. Biden on Wednesday announced another US$800-million in military aid to Ukraine. This comes on the heels of a previous US$200-million committed last weekend and US$1-billion over the previous year. The equipment pledged on Wednesday includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 9,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 rifles, 400 machine guns and 100 drones.

The President said he would also help Ukraine acquire longer-range anti-aircraft missiles, likely to include Soviet-made S-300s currently owned by NATO members Greece, Bulgaria and Slovakia.

“This could be a long and difficult battle, but the American people will be steadfast in our support for the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations,” he said.

Mr. Biden would not comment when asked if he would fulfill Mr. Zelensky’s request for planes.

The White House has so far declined to facilitate a plan to transfer 28 MiG-29s from Poland to Ukraine, contending it is too provocative and logistically complicated, and that Ukraine hasn’t been using all of the fighter jets it already has.

After Mr. Zelensky’s speech, members of Congress urged Mr. Biden to change his mind.

“There are some people that worry that what we might do might irritate Vladimir Putin of Russia, that he might consider it some kind of provocation. Well, it’s time for him to be more worried about what we might do than for us to be worried about what he might do,” Senator Mitt Romney said in a video outside the Senate chamber.

Ted Lieu, a California Democratic congressman, tweeted: “I urge Department of Defence to allow the MiG transfer and not substitute its judgment for what Zelensky has repeatedly said Ukraine needs.”

In a call between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and General Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, Mr. Sullivan warned Wednesday that the U.S. would impose further “consequences” on Russia if it uses chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, the White House said.

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