NEBI KEN and JURAS POCKETS
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Russia announced on Tuesday that it would significantly reduce military operations near the Ukrainian capital and northern city as outlines of a possible deal to end a brutal war appeared in the final round of talks.
The Ukrainian delegation at the conference in Istanbul set a framework in which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by a number of other countries.
Moscow’s public response has been positive, and talks are expected 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.
During the talks, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Famin said that Moscow had decided “in principle … to reduce military activity in Kiev and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
He did not immediately clarify what this would mean from a practical point of view.
The statement was met with skepticism by the United States and others.
The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Russia cannot be trusted. Although the signals from the talks are “positive”, they “cannot silence the explosions of Russian shells,” he said in a video message.
Zelensky said that Ukrainian troops forced Russia, adding that “we should not weaken our guard” because 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 words of the country, which continues to “fight to destroy us.”
While Moscow showed this as a gesture of goodwill, its ground forces threatened and suffered heavy losses in their attempt to capture Kyiv and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to have lowered its military targets, saying its “main goal” now is to gain control of the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass in eastern Ukraine.
Asked whether the Russian statement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue the offensive, US President Joe Biden said: “Let’s see. I don’t read anything until I see what their actions are. “
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has suggested that Russia’s signs of retreat may be Moscow’s attempt to “deceive people and distract.”
This would not be the first time. During the intense escalation of the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment into railroad cars and preparing to return to their home bases after the exercises. At the time, Putin was signaling an interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched an invasion.
Western officials say Moscow is now stepping up troops in the Donbas to encircle Ukrainian forces. A deadly siege of Russia in the south continues, civilians are trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombed cities.
“There is what Russia is saying, and there is what Russia is doing, and we are focusing on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is the continuing brutality of Ukraine.”
Even as negotiators gathered, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces punched a hole in a nine-story government administration building in a strike on the southern port city of Nikolaev, killing at least 12 people, emergency officials said. The search for other bodies in the rubble continued.
“It’s awful. They waited for people to go to work, ”regional governor Vitaly Kim said before hitting the building. “I overslept. I was lucky. “
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States had found a small number of Russian ground troops withdrawing from the Kiev area, but apparently it was a redeployment of forces, not “a real diversion.”
He said it was too early to say how extensive Russia’s movements could be and where the troops would be sent.
“This does not mean that the threat to Kiev is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including Kiev.” He said that Russian air strikes on Kyiv continue.
Rob Lee, a military expert at the US Institute of Foreign Affairs, tweeted about Russia’s statement: “It’s more like acknowledging the situation around Kyiv, where Russia’s offensive has been suspended for several weeks and Ukrainian forces have been successful lately. Russia does not have the strength to surround the city. “
The meeting in Istanbul was the first talks in two weeks between Russia and Ukraine. Earlier, the talks were held in person in Belarus or on video.
Among other things, the Kremlin has constantly demanded that Ukraine give up hope of joining NATO.
The Ukrainian delegation offered a detailed framework for a peace agreement that would guarantee Ukraine’s neutral security by a group of third countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, under an agreement “one attack is an attack on all.”
Ukraine has said it will also be ready to negotiate over a 15-year period on the future of the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula in 2014.
The head of the Russian delegation Vladimir Medinsky said on Russian television that the Ukrainian proposals are “a step towards us, a clear positive fact.”
He warned that the parties were still far from an agreement, but said: “Now we know how to move forward to a compromise. We are not just celebrating the time in the negotiations. “
In other events:
– As a result of coordinated actions to combat Russian espionage, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Northern Macedonia have sent dozens of Russian diplomats.
– The head of the UN arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. Russian troops have taken control of the decommissioned Chernobyl station, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, and the current Zaporozhye station, whose building was damaged in the fighting.
– Russia destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kiev and in the east, the Ukrainian military said.
– Roman Abramovich, a longtime ally of Putin, who came under the sanctions of Great Britain and the European Union, was in the hall at the Istanbul talks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the owner of the Chelsea football team acts as an unofficial mediator approved by both countries. But the mystery surrounding his role has been deepened by news reports that he may have been poisoned during a previous round of talks.
Over the past few days, Ukrainian forces have counterattacked and recaptured territory on the outskirts of Kiev and other areas.
Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a trench to take pictures with Colonel-General Alexander Syrsky, who said Ukraine had regained control of the vast majority of Irpen, a key suburb northwest of the capital where heavy fighting was taking place.
“We are defending the homeland because we have a very high morale,” said Syrsky, commander of the defense of Kiev. “And because we want to win.”
Ukrainian forces also recaptured Trostyanets south of Sumy in the northeast after weeks of occupation, which left Russian bodies, burned and twisted tanks and burned buildings.
Putin’s ground forces have been thwarted not only by stronger-than-expected resistance from Ukraine, but, according to Western officials, by Russian tactical mistakes, poor morale, lack of food, fuel and equipment for cold weather and other problems.
Reiterating what the military said last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the “liberation of Donbass” is now Moscow’s main task.
While this is a possible strategy for Putin’s face-off, it has also sparked fears in Ukraine that the Kremlin is seeking to split the country and force it to surrender part of its territory.
Karmanov reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters around the world have contributed to this report.
Follow the coverage of the AP war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine