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Ukraine is willing to become a neutral country as part of a peace deal with Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukraine is ready to discuss becoming a neutral country as part of a peace deal with Russia. That is what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says. Negotiators from Ukraine and Russia arrived in Turkey today in hopes of reaching an agreement to put an end to Russia's war in Ukraine, a war that has killed at least 1,100 civilians and sent more than 10 million people fleeing their homes. NPR's Becky Sullivan is into Dnipro in central eastern Ukraine and has the latest for us. Hi, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So where do these negotiations stand at the moment?

SULLIVAN: Right. So as you said, this Zelenskyy proposal that Ukraine could adopt a neutral status - basically, agree not to join NATO in order to get a peace deal - that's pretty big.

CHANG: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: He says now that that would have to come with various security guarantees. And it's a little hard to know how a security guarantee, especially from the West, might differ substantively from NATO's membership, but maybe it's an opening. And the negotiators meeting in Turkey tomorrow and Wednesday - they're still just representatives. It's not actually Zelenskyy himself, who has repeatedly called for face-to-face negotiations with his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Russia says that that won't happen until negotiators can come to agreement on the biggest issues. So we'll see if that can happen.

CHANG: OK. And in terms of fighting on the ground, what's the latest there?

SULLIVAN: There are two big trends happening over the past week. The first is that Russia seems to be shifting focus, basically changing to more of a defensive posture, standing still instead of advancing around Kyiv and maybe looking to intensify their efforts in the south and especially in the eastern part of the country, which means places like Mariupol, the city on Ukraine's southeast coast, will probably see even more shelling in the weeks ahead. Today, the mayor there said that 5,000 civilians have died there, a number that we can't verify because it's really not safe to come anywhere near the city. And then the other element here is that Ukraine appears to be mounting some successful counteroffensives. Today, I talked to Major Andriy Shulga He's a spokesperson for the Dnipropetrovsk region territorial defense. Here's what he had to say.

ANDRIY SHULGA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SULLIVAN: What he's saying here is that successful counter talks are taking place throughout the country, which the Pentagon confirms. The biggest ones appear to be in the south, near the city of Kherson, which was really the only major city that Russia has taken so far. And then they're also making moves in the northeast, near the city of Sumy. And Ukraine also said today that they've retaken Irpin, which is a suburb northwest of Kyiv that has seen some heavy shelling.

CHANG: Obviously, it's too soon to say that the tide is turning, but it does sound like Ukraine's forces have been able to hold on. What does the outlook look like for Ukraine at this point in this war?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, you know, I think it's changing from what a lot of analysts expected at the outset. Part of that is that Russia really has mismanaged the war so far, especially in the early days. Another factor is that just over the past eight years, Ukraine's military really has become a much more professional and experienced military and much more well-equipped, thanks to years of being supplied weapons by the West. And Ukrainian officials sound increasingly confident about a Ukrainian victory - and everyday people, too, frankly. One key could be the changing weather. Before the invasion, experts widely viewed winter as key to Russia's goals, in part because tanks and other heavy equipment move better on frozen ground. But it's late March now, and so the ground's no longer frozen, of course. And yesterday, I talked to Ilko Bozhko. He is a regional military spokesperson here in the Dnipro area. And here's what he had to say.

ILKO BOZHKO: Right now, spring is coming. You know, it's still coming. It will be totally fulfilled with greenery. And it's really good for guerrillas to start working with. Just one Molotov cocktail can fire just one tank.

SULLIVAN: Basically, he's saying as spring comes and the greenery here gets lush, the better that is for guerrilla warfare, which is the kind of fighting that Ukraine has been doing. Those guys with the stingers and the javelins - they can stand in the trees where they're much harder for the Russians to spot. Now, that said, spring does come late here. It snowed yesterday in Dnipro. Trees are only just starting to bud. So I followed up with him by asking, you know, it sounds like you're saying this might be a long war. And he agreed, but he does think that Ukraine can hold on.

CHANG: That is NPR's Becky Sullivan reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine. Thank you so much, Becky.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.