Relief for Kyiv? Russia vows to reduce activities near capital

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Local residents walk past a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostsyanets, about 400 km (250 miles) east of the capital kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022. The World War II monument is seen in background. The war, which has lasted for more than a month, has caused thousands of deaths and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including nearly 4 million from their country. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

PA

Russia announced on Tuesday it would drastically reduce military operations near the Ukrainian capital and a northern town, as outlines of a possible deal to end the bitter war emerged in the latest round of talks.

Ukraine’s delegation to the conference, held in Istanbul, established a framework in which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by a range of other nations.

Public reaction from Moscow has been positive and talks are set to resume on Wednesday, five weeks after what turned into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and nearly 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.

Amid the talks, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow had decided to “basically…reduce military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create the conditions new negotiations.

He did not immediately specify what that would mean in practice.

The announcement was met with skepticism by the United States and others.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia could not be trusted. Although the signals from the talks are “positive”, they “cannot silence the explosions of Russian shells”, he said in a video address.

Zelenskyy said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia’s hand, adding that ‘we should not let our guard down’ as the invading army ‘still has great potential to continue attacks on our country’ .

Ukraine will continue negotiations, he said, but officials do not trust the word of the country which continues to “fight to destroy us”.

While Moscow described it as a gesture of goodwill, its ground troops got bogged down and suffered heavy casualties in their bid to seize kyiv and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin appeared to scale back its war aims, saying its ‘main objective’ was now to take control of the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass in eastern Ukraine. .

US President Joe Biden, who asked if the Russian announcement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue its assault, said: “We will see. I don’t see it until I see what their actions are.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the Russian indications of a rollback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and divert attention”.

It would not be the first time. In the tense build-up to the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment onto wagons and preparing to return to their bases after completing drills. At the time, Putin was showing interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.

Western officials say Moscow is now bolstering its troops in the Donbass in a bid to encircle Ukrainian forces. And Russia’s murderous siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombed cities. The latest satellite images from commercial supplier Maxar Technologies showed hundreds of people waiting outside a grocery store amid reports of food and water shortages.

“There’s what Russia says and there’s what Russia does, and we focus on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine.”

Even as negotiators gathered, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces gouged a gaping hole in a nine-story government administration building in a strike on the southern port city of Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people , announced the emergency authorities. The search for other bodies in the rubble continued.

“It’s terrible. They waited for people to go to work” before hitting the building, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said. “I overslept. I’m lucky.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US had detected a small number of Russian ground forces moving away from the kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, ‘not a real withdrawal’ .

He said it was too early to say how big Russian moves might be or where troops will be repositioned.

“That doesn’t mean the threat to kyiv is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including in Kyiv.” He said Russian airstrikes on kyiv were continuing.

Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted of the Russian announcement: “It sounds more like an acknowledgment of the situation around Kyiv where the advance of Russia has been stuck for weeks and Ukrainian forces have had recent successes. . Russia does not have the forces to encircle the city.

The Istanbul meeting was the first time that negotiators from Russia and Ukraine had spoken face to face in two weeks. Previous talks have taken place in person in Belarus or via video.

Among other things, the Kremlin has always demanded that Ukraine abandon all hope of joining NATO.

The Ukrainian delegation proposed a detailed framework for a peace agreement under which the security of a neutral Ukraine would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, under an arrangement similar to “an attack on one is an attack on all”.

Ukraine has said it would also be willing to hold 15-year talks on the future of the Crimean peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014.

Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, told Russian television that the Ukrainian proposals are a “step to meet us halfway, a clearly positive fact”.

He warned that the parties are still a long way from reaching an agreement, but said: “We now know how to go further towards a compromise. We are not just marking time in the talks.

In other developments:

— In what appeared to be a coordinated action to combat Russian espionage, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland and North Macedonia expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.

— The head of the UN nuclear monitoring agency arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. Russian forces took control of the disused Chernobyl power plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, and the active Zaporizhzhia power plant, where a building was damaged in the fighting.

– Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near kyiv and in the east, the Ukrainian military said.

— In the Istanbul talks hall was Roman Abramovich, a longtime Putin ally who was sanctioned by Britain and the European Union. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Chelsea football team owner was serving as an unofficial mediator approved by the two countries. But the mystery surrounding his role has been deepened by reports that he may have been poisoned during a previous round of talks.

Over the past few days, Ukrainian forces have launched counterattacks and reclaimed ground on the outskirts of Kyiv and in other areas.

Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a trench to take photos with Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said Ukraine had regained control of a large majority of Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital which experienced heavy fighting.

“We are defending our homeland because we have very high morale,” said Syrskyi, the commander in charge of Kyiv’s defense. “And because we want to win.”

Ukrainian forces also recaptured Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of occupation that left a landscape of Russian bodies, burnt and twisted tanks and charred buildings.

Putin’s ground forces have been thwarted not only by stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, but also by what Western officials say are Russian tactical missteps, lack of morale, food, fuel and equipment shortages. for cold weather, and other problems.

Repeating what the army said last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the “liberation of Donbass” is now Moscow’s main objective.

While this presents a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it has also raised fears among Ukrainians that the Kremlin is aiming to divide the country and force him to cede some of its territory.

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Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Christi C. Elwood