Russia to Scale Back Attacks Near Ukraine’s Capital Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia announced Tuesday it will significantly scale back military operations near Ukraine’s capital and a northern city, as the outlines of a possible deal to end the grinding war came into view at the latest round of talks.

Ukraine’s delegation at the conference, held in Istanbul, laid out a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.

Moscow’s public reaction was positive, and the negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday, five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.

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Amid the talks, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow has decided to “fundamentally … cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

He didn’t immediately explain what this would mean in concrete terms.

The U.S. and many other nations were skeptical of the announcement.

Volodymyr Zeleskyy, Ukrainian President, stated that Russia is not to be trusted. Although the signals from the talks are “positive,” they ”can’t silence explosions of Russian shells,” he said in a video address.

Zelenskyy said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia’s hand, adding that “we shouldn’t let down our guard” because the invading army still “has a great potential to continue attacks against our country.”

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

Although Moscow called it a gesture of goodwill, the Russian ground troops suffered heavy losses and became bogged down in their attempt to take over Kyiv. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to lower its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is gaining control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden, asked whether 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’ll see. I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention.”

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It wouldn’t be the first time. In the tension buildup to the invasion the Russian military reported that units loaded equipment onto railroad cars, and were preparing for their return to home base after they had completed exercises. Putin seemed to be showing interest in diplomacy at the time. However, Russia invaded the country 10 days later.

Western officials say Moscow is now reinforcing troops in the Donbas in a bid to encircle Ukraine’s forces. And Russia’s deadly siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombarded cities. Maxar Technologies’ latest satellite imagery shows hundreds of people waiting in line outside a grocery shop amid claims of water and food shortages.

“There is what Russia says and there is what Russia does, and we’re focused 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 blasted 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, emergency authorities said. More bodies continued to be found under the rubble.

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

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. has detected small numbers of Russian ground forces moving away from the Kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, “not a real withdrawal.”

His comments were not accurate and it is too early to know how large the Russian forces are or where they will be deployed.

“It does not mean the threat to Kyiv is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv.” He said Russian airstrikes against Kyiv continued.

Rob Lee, a military expert at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted of the Russian announcement: “This sounds like more of an acknowledgment of the situation around Kyiv where Russia’s advance has been stalled for weeks and Ukrainian forces have had recent successes. Russia doesn’t have the forces to encircle the city.”

In Istanbul, the meeting was the first in which negotiators representing Russia and Ukraine had met in person in less than two weeks. Talks in the past were conducted in person or over video in Belarus.

The Kremlin demanded, among other things throughout the process that Ukraine give up any hopes of joining NATO.

Ukraine’s delegation offered a detailed framework for a peace deal under which a neutral Ukraine’s security would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, in an arrangement similar to NATO’s “an attack on one is an attack on all” principle.

Ukraine stated that they would be open to talks on a 15 year period regarding the future of Crimean Peninsula. This peninsula was seized from Russia by Russia in 2014.

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

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He cautioned that the parties are still far from reaching an agreement, but said: “We know now how to move further toward compromise. We aren’t just marking time in talks.”

Other developments

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

— The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. Russian forces have taken control of the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and of the active Zaporizhzhia plant, where a building was damaged in 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, Ukraine’s military said.

— In the room at the Istanbul talks was Roman Abramovich, a longtime Putin ally who has been sanctioned by Britain and the European Union. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson said that the Chelsea soccer club owner was acting as an informal mediator between both countries. However, news reports claim that the role of his mediator has become more complicated due to speculations that he was poisoned at an earlier round.

In the last few days, the Ukrainian forces mounted counterattacks to reclaim ground in the vicinity of Kyiv as well as other parts.

For photos, Col. General Oleksandr Syrskyi took photographs with Ukrainian soldiers in trenches. He stated that Ukraine has regained control over a large majority of Irpin (a crucial suburb north of the capital which has been subject to heavy fighting).

“We defend our motherland because we have very high morale,” said Syrskyi, the commander in charge of the defense of Kyiv. “And because we want to win.”

Trostyanets was also retaken by Ukrainian forces south of Sumy, northeast. This came after weeks of Russian occupation which had left behind a landscape of Russian corpses, bent tanks, and burned buildings.

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

Repeating what the military said last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that “liberating Donbas” is now Moscow’s chief objective.

This is a potential exit strategy that Putin could use to save his face, but it also raises fears in Ukraine about the Kremlin’s plans to divide the country and make it surrender some of its territories.

Karmanau was reporting from Lviv (Ukraine). This report was contributed by Associated Press journalists from around the globe.

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