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Ahead of this week's EU summit, France and Germany urge Putin to meet Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Ukraine's Kharkiv region over the weekend, calling the situation there "indescribably difficult."
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Ukraine's Kharkiv region over the weekend, calling the situation there "indescribably difficult."

Two European leaders over the weekend urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his country's hostilities in Ukraine and return to the negotiating table as the war nears the 100-day mark.

In a Saturday phone call, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with Putin, asking him to hold "direct" and "serious" talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to releases from the offices of Macron and Scholz.

In a statement, the Kremlin said Russia "is open to renewing dialogue with Kyiv." But Putin also warned Macron and Scholz against further arms supplies to Ukraine, it said, suggesting that continuing to provide weapons could risk "further destabilization of the situation." And the Kremlin said any move to allow the export of grain from Ukraine's ports — which have been blocked by Russian warships — should be answered by the lifting of what the Kremlin called "relevant sanctions."

Negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv have been frozen for weeks. Ukrainian officials responded skeptically to the development.

"Any agreements with Russia aren't worth a penny. Is it possible to negotiate with a country that always cynically and propagandistically lies?" wrote Mykhailo Podolyak, a presidential adviser and member of Ukraine's negotiation team, on Telegram Saturday. "A barbarian can only be stopped by force."

Fighting focuses on Severodonetsk

Sunday marks the 95th day of Russia's invasion. Russia has refocused its efforts on eastern Ukraine, where fighting is now centered on Severodonetsk, the last major city in the Luhansk oblast controlled by Ukraine.

Russian forces are working to encircle the city, according to Ukrainian military officials — the same tactic Russia used against Mariupol and Chernihiv, and attempted against Kyiv. Military analysts and Ukrainians in the region report that the fighting has been brutal for both sides.

Saturday's call to Putin by Macron and Scholz comes as Europe is dividing over whether to take a hard line against Russia — or to encourage Ukraine to pursue a cease-fire.

An EU summit about the conflict is set to begin Monday. But the member states have disagreed about whether to intensify sanctions against Russia or instead encourage peace talks, according to Reuters.

Any peace talks would likely include discussion of ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia — something Ukraine has steadfastly said it will refuse to do.

"If the occupiers think that Lyman or Severodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian," Zelenskyy said in an overnight address.

Meanwhile, Zelenskyy traveled outside Kyiv over the weekend to visit frontline forces near Kharkiv.

While Ukraine has claimed victory in the city of Kharkiv, some nearby areas are still under relentless attack. About a third of the Kharkiv region is still controlled by Russian troops, Ukrainian officials say.

The fighting and destruction there is "indescribably difficult," Zelenskyy said. Authorities say more than 2,000 multi-story apartment blocks have been destroyed in the area.

"Destruction is significant, but we have a vision of ways to rebuild the area, and we are already working with potential investors to finance housing, public buildings and infrastructure recovery. First, we need to ensure that housing stock is rebuilt so people can come back and business can resume," said Oleh Synyehubov, the head of Kharkiv's regional military administration.

The Ukrainian military says it has launched a counteroffensive in the south aimed at recapturing the port city of Kherson.

"There is more and more information that the occupiers are trying to limit the departure of our people from the temporarily occupied areas of the Kherson region. They do not provide any humanitarian corridors. And they have closed the individual departure of people," Zelenskyy said Saturday night.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.