‘Hell on earth’: Zelensky’s Nato confession to Russia as death toll continues to rise

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Russia has demanded that its neighbour never be allowed to join the alliance.

The concession comes as the death toll continues to rise, with southern city Mariupol described as hell on earth. The bombardment of Kyiv and other cities continued on day 20 of President Putin’s invasion. A 35-hour curfew was declared in the capital after artillery strikes on residential areas.

Nearly 100 children have been killed since the war began and the Russian military has continued to target homes, hospitals and schools.

President Zelensky thanked every country that has taken a “moral stance against the Russian war machine”.

But he said some Nato countries are “hypnotised by Russian aggression” and that Kyiv understands Ukraine is “not a member” of the “strongest alliance”.

He added: “We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. “It’s a truth and it must be recognised, and I’m glad that our ­people are starting to realise that and count on themselves and our partners who are helping us. If we cannot enter through open doors, then we must cooperate with the associations with which we can, which will help us, protect us, and have separate guarantees.”

Russia has long demanded that its neighbour never be allowed to join the alliance.

Mr Zelensky also offered a glimmer of hope for peace in eastern Europe during an address to the nation, describing “pretty good” negotiations with Russia on Monday.

He added: “We can still stop the Russian war machine, we can still stop the killing of people and it will be easier to do it together, stopping the destruction of democracy.”

Oleksiy Arestovich, one of Mr Zelensky’s advisers, suggested that an agreement could be reached within weeks. He said: “I think that no later than in May, early May, we should have a peace agreement, maybe much earlier, we will see.

“I am talking about the latest possible dates.

“We are at a fork in the road now. There will either be a peace deal struck very quickly, within a week or two, with troop withdrawal and everything.

“Or there will be an attempt to scrape together some, say, Syrians for a round two and, when we grind them too, an agreement by mid-April or late April.”

A senior aide to Ukraine’s president said it would be necessary for Mr Zelensky and Putin to actually meet to make major progress in any peace talks.

Downing Street was last night monitoring the development closely as it upped its sanctions on Russia. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “I think what we are seeing here is President Zelensky and the Ukrainian ­government seeking a path of diplomacy throughout.

“What’s important is that it is for the Ukrainian government to decide what they think is suitable and they should have no decisions imposed on them.

“Certainly, we do want a peaceful solution but it must be on the terms the Ukrainian government agree to and they should not be forced into it. It remains the PM’s view that Nato membership is a right of democratic countries but it is for those countries to decide.”

But there were more distressing scenes in Ukraine yesterday.

Mariupol’s deputy mayor Sergei Orlov claimed that Russian troops had taken staff and patients at the city’s hospital as hostages.

Families fleeing the besieged city feared Russian fighter jets would kill them as they escaped, it was said.

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One of the city’s residents, named as Lidiia, said: “We stopped several times and hid the children because the airplane was flying very low directly above us. We were afraid that we would come under fire. But it was no longer possible to stay in the city. Mariupol is now just hell.”

Another civilian, Svitlana, added: “Yesterday, the last grocery store in the city was bombed. I wonder how will people survive now?”

The horror of the war was summed up by an image of a soldier’s daughter at his funeral yesterday.

The daughter of Ukrainian ­soldier Rostyslav Romanchuk stood with her head bowed by his coffin in Lviv. Her father and his colleagues died in Sunday’s airstrike on the Yavoriv military complex. 

The barrage of Russian missiles killed 35 and wounded scores.

Meanwhile, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg yesterday revealed there are “hundreds of thousands” of troops on “heightened alert”, including 100,000 US troops in Europe.

And “substantially more forces” could be deployed to eastern Europe amid fears Putin will invade another European country if he is successful in Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden is to meet with Nato and EU leaders in Brussels next week in response to the invasion, the White House has said.

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COMMENT BY COLONEL RICHARD KEMP

RUSSIA may only be able to fight on for another 14 days, defence sources say.

Putin’s terms for ending the war are now the retention of Crimea and the Donbas region and a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO.

With his control of Russian media he will be able to spin his gains as a success.

There have been hints in recent days that both sides are getting serious about peace negotiations.

If Putin’s terms are met, he will want more.

He will be looking for the end or relaxation of the sanctions on Russia.

Putin will also use the prospect of peace as leverage against NATO and the EU.

He will seek undertakings from NATO to pull back in eastern and northern Europe, and for the EU to repudiate Ukrainian membership, even if only behind closed doors.

Such demands, when set against many more thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, will be hard for European and US leaders to resist.

If peace is agreed on Putin’s terms, this will be a victory for him, especially if sanctions are eased.

It will also deter NATO, whose diplomatic resolve in the face of such appalling violence is likely to melt away when it ends.

  • COLONEL RICHARD KEMP – Former British Army Commander

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