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Zelensky calls for direct talks with Putin; U.S. Embassy says nuclear plant attack is ‘a war crime’

After a fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on March 4, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked memories of Chernobyl in an appeal to Russian people. (Video: Reuters)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his call for direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of his country, and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said Russia’s overnight attack on a nuclear power plant amounted to “a war crime.”

In his first news conference since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky on Thursday repeated his desire to have direct talks with Putin, who has rebuffed the Ukrainian president’s request before and during the invasion.

Russian forces seize Ukrainian nuclear power plant after shelling sets it on fire

Zelensky made his appeal despite saying he is living through “a nightmare” and “cannot even imagine the type of man who would plan such acts.”

“It’s not that I want to talk to Putin. I need to talk to Putin. The world needs to talk to Putin,” he told reporters. “There is no other way to stop this war.”

After a Russian projectile hit the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine overnight, igniting a fire that caused widespread alarm, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Friday accused Russia of committing a war crime with the attack on Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

“It is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant,” the embassy tweeted. “Putin’s shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further.”

What to know about Ukraine’s nuclear sites and the risks the Russian invasion could pose

Zelensky also weighed in Friday, calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Only such a step could prevent attacks like the one on the Zaporizhzhia plant, which could have been as bad as “six Chernobyls,” he said.

Russian forces in Ukraine seized Europe’s largest nuclear plant on March 3 after their shelling set part of the complex on fire. (Video: The Washington Post)

While the attack on the plant did not trigger a release of radioactive material, Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, warned of the “risks that we may all incur” if fighting around nuclear sites rages on. Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and surrounding area early Friday.

After negotiations Thursday, Russia and Ukraine said they agreed to limited local cease-fires to facilitate “humanitarian corridors.” The limited agreement was prompted, in part, after several cities in Ukraine’s south warned that they were running out of supplies. The United Nations refugee agency said more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine and at least 249 civilians have been killed so far, adding that the true death toll is likely “considerably higher” because of the difficulty of conducting accurate counts in war zones.

Speaking from his office building in Kyiv, which is now fortified with sandbags against Russian attacks, Zelensky on Thursday stressed that Ukraine is ready to speak on all topics with Russia at the negotiating table. The Thursday negotiations concluded with an agreement on cease-fire corridors for Ukrainians to escape the intense fighting, but no progress was made on a settlement, said Mykhailo Podolyak, the Ukrainian negotiator.

“The Russian side has long ago formed the answers to their questions,” Zelensky said. “What is the point of posing questions if you long ago have the answers? For now, this is the difficulty of this dialogue.”

He added: “There are issues where it’s needed to find compromise so people don’t die, and there are issues where there can be no compromise. Well, we cannot just say, ‘here it is, it’s your country now, Ukraine is part of Russia.’ This is just impossible. So why suggest it?”

The first news conference since the invasion began was a colorful one, as Zelensky, who appeared energetic at moments and exhausted at others, again praised the Ukrainian people for their fight against the invasion. That is why, he said, he had to be “so strong and so decisive.”

“We have a special people, an extraordinary people,” he said.

He also thanked the journalists for showing up amid the constant attacks on Kyiv.

“It’s best to see it with your own eyes,” he said.

But after Ukraine “survived a night that could have stopped history” with the nuclear plant attack in southeastern Ukraine, Zelensky on Friday again called on international allies to implement a no-fly zone over the country.

The United States, Britain and others have so far ruled out supporting any no-fly zone, stating that it would likely severely escalate the conflict.

But Zelensky said only “an immediate closure of sky over Ukraine” would guarantee that Russia would not bomb nuclear installations.

“It could’ve been as bad as six Chernobyls,” Zelensky said of the nuclear plant attack in a video posted to Twitter. “The Russian tankers knew what they were shooting at.”

What are war crimes — and could Russia be committing them in Ukraine?

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman pushed back Friday, blaming Ukraine for the fire at the plant and calling it a plot to discredit Moscow. At a Friday news briefing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged Russians to rally around Putin on the ninth day of the invasion.

“This is not the time to divide, it is the time to unite,” Peskov said. “And unite around our president.”

In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is seeking an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday to discuss the fire at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

In his Friday video, Zelensky urged Russians not to “remain silent” following the overnight attack. He said Russians should remember the impact of the deadly 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, then under the control of the Soviet Union.

“Radiation doesn’t know where Russia is,” he said. “Radiation doesn’t know where the borders of your country are.”