File photos of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph:( AFP )
Kiev has been battling pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014, following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, a move that plunged Russia's ties with the West to new lows and led to economic penalties
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday challenged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to meet him in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region for talks on ending the conflict there and easing tensions between the two states.
The blunt offer for talks came following a flare-up in clashes between Ukraine's army and pro-Russian separatists controlling two regions in the country's east, raising concerns of a major escalation in the simmering war.
In an address to the nation, Zelensky said that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators had recently discussed plans for officials to travel to the frontlines of the trench conflict to assess the situation.
"I am ready to go even further and invite you to meet in any part of the Ukrainian Donbass where war is ongoing," Zelensky said.
Kiev has been battling pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014, following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, a move that plunged Russia's ties with the West to new lows and led to economic penalties.
The conflict, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives, has seen 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year, compared to 50 in all of 2020.
The escalation along the frontline as well as sharp rhetoric has spurred fresh rounds of talks. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met earlier this week and also on Tuesday, although they have so far failed to secure any breakthroughs.
Zelensky said in his address to the nation that although Ukraine did not want war, it was prepared to fight.
"Will Ukraine defend itself if something happens? Always. Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last," he said.
On the frontline however, fears were growing of a major escalation, with soldiers set to repel attacks and streets in towns near the front line empty over fears of a return to war.
Ukraine, its Western allies and NATO have accused Russia of a "provocative" build-up of troops on Ukraine's eastern border and in Crimea. Russia in turn accused the United States and NATO of "provocative activity" in the Black Sea region.
The standoff has prompted Ukraine to urge NATO member states to admit Ukraine into the military alliance. It also called on the European Union to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow but acknowledged that EU might not be prepared to do so yet.
"Our citizens need clear signals that in the eighth year of the war, a country that is a shield for Europe at the cost of its lives, will receive support not just as partners, from the stands, but as players on the same team, directly on the field, shoulder to shoulder," Zelenskiy said.
(With inputs from agencies)