Ukraine has suggested that it is willing to resume talks with Russia as Moscow claimed to have taken full control of the besieged city of Mariupol – its biggest prize since it invaded Ukraine in February.
Speaking to a television channel on Saturday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that “discussions between Ukraine and Russia will undoubtedly take place”.
“Under what format I don’t know – with intermediaries, without them, in a broader group, at the presidential level,” he added. “But the war will be bloody, there will be fighting and [it] will only definitively end through diplomacy.
“There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table. We want everything to return [to as it was before] but Russia does not want that.”
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, responded by blaming Ukraine for stopping the talks. The last discussions between the two sides took place on 22 April, according to Russian news agencies.
During the interview, held with a Ukrainian broadcaster, Zelenskiy spoke of creating a document enshrining security guarantees for his country. Although bilateral discussions would be held with Russia, the document would be signed by “friends and partners of Ukraine, without Moscow”, he added.
However, he warned that the precondition for resuming negotiations was that Moscow did not kill Ukrainian troops who had been defending the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. “The most important thing for me is to save the maximum number of people and soldiers,” he said.
Last week, Russia announced it had taken full control of Mariupol, the first major city to fall. The last group of Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered on Friday, bringing to an end a months-long siege of the defenders’ last stronghold.
“Underground structures of Azovstal where militants were hiding are now under full control of Russian armed forces,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement, adding that 2,439 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered.
Hours before the Russian announcement, Zelenskiy said the defenders had been told by commanders that they should leave. In a live video posted on the messaging service Telegram, Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment, which has led the defence of the factory, said only the dead remained.
“The higher military command has given the order to save the lives of the soldiers of our garrison and to stop defending the city,” he said. “I now hope that soon the families and all of Ukraine will be able to bury their fighters with honours.”
Ukraine hopes to exchange the surrendering Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners. But in Donetsk, pro-Kremlin authorities are threatening to put some of them on trial.
The fall of Mariupol – the largest trading port on the Sea of Azov, from which Ukraine exports grain, iron, steel and heavy machinery – is a breakthrough for Russia. Taking control of the city means gaining a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea.
Fierce fighting continued in the eastern Donbas, where Zelenskiy said Russian troops had “completely ruined” the cities of Rubizhne and Volnovakha, “just as they did Mariupol”, adding that the Russians were “trying to do the same with Severodonetsk and many other cities”.
Meanwhile, on Saturday the Russian energy company Gazprom halted gas exports to neighbouring Finland, the Finnish gas system operator said, after Helsinki angered Moscow by applying for Nato membership last week.
Moscow had warned Finland that any such application would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”.
The majority of gas used in Finland comes from Russia, but the fuel only accounts for about 5% of the country’s annual energy consumption.
The Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, said he and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had had “open and direct” talks to discuss the bid for Nato membership, after Erdoğan openly questioned whether Finland and Sweden, which has also applied, should be permitted to join.