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President Vladimir Putin said on May 24 that Russia is willing to hold talks on the war in Ukraine, but questioned whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has the legitimacy to negotiate on Ukraine’s behalf.

Putin, speaking in Minsk after meeting Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, said Zelenskiy’s five-year term was due to end on May 20.

“Of course, we are aware that the legitimacy of the current head of state has ended,” Putin saying at a joint press conference with Lukashenka. “We must be completely sure that we are dealing with legitimate authorities.”

Zelenskiy was sworn in for a five-year term on May 20, 2019. Elections were to have been held on March 31 this year, but were postponed because the country is still under martial law.

According to the Ukrainian Constitution, Zelenskiy must continue perform their duties until a new head of state is elected.

Ukraine has been under martial law since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 and would have to amend the law to be able to hold elections during a state of war.

When the question of Zelenskiy’s legitimacy was raised earlier this week, an EU spokesperson said the European Union had no doubts about Zelenskiy’s status as Ukraine’s leader, and UN Secretary-General spokesman António Guterres, said Zelenskiy “remains… the person the secretary-general contacts when he needs to contact the Ukrainian leader.”

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In his comments at the joint news conference, Putin, who was re-elected to a fifth term in March in an election that the United States and other Western countries did not consider free and fair, did not acknowledge Ukraine’s limitations in holding elections while the country It periodically suffers Russian attacks.

Putin reiterated that Russia “is in favor of negotiations on Ukraine” but said it would be possible to return to talks “only based on the current realities in the zone of special operations.”

Zelenskiy has rejected Moscow’s preconditions, including allowing Russia to retain territory his forces have taken so far in the war.

An international peace conference on Ukraine will be held in Switzerland in June to discuss Zelenskiy’s peace plan, but Russia has not been invited. Putin has downplayed the conference.

A U.S. diplomat, asked on May 24 about possible routes to peace in Ukraine, said Ukraine’s allies do not see Putin as interested in peace at this time.

“It has chosen the path of war and it is important that Ukraine has the opportunity to stabilize on the battlefield,” US Deputy Secretary of State James O’Brien said in a call with reporters.

“We are always interested to see that when Ukraine is prepared to make peace, it is able to do so on terms that are a success for Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Russia and Belarus have increased their ties and continue to envision the formation of a so-called union state.

Lukashenka and Putin held individual talks before the press conference for about 45 minutes.

Putin said he and Lukashenka discussed “issues regarding the formation of a unified defense space,” noting that “a joint regional group of troops, Russian defense complexes and tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on Belarusian territory.”

He said Russia regularly held nuclear forces exercises and “they are now being carried out with Belarusian allies.”

Lukashenka has given Moscow permission to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons and troops in Belarus, which shares a more than 1,000 kilometer-long border with Ukraine.

Lukashenka said there was nothing special about the joint training, which he said was necessary because the world is “unstable” and “dangerous.”

“Despite everything, Minsk and Moscow remain on course to strengthen integration. We support each other and will support each other in every way,” he stated.

Putin arrived in Minsk on a two-day visit on the afternoon of May 23. It is his second visit abroad since his inauguration on May 7. His first visit to a foreign country after his inauguration was to China.

With information from AP and Reuters