Kyiv:Russia's military announced Tuesday it will “fundamentally" scale back operations near Ukraine's capital and a northern city, as talks brought the outlines of a possible deal to end the grinding war into view.
Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the move was meant to increase trust in the talks after several rounds of negotiations failed to halt what has devolved into a bloody campaign of attrition.
The announcement was met with scepticism from the U.S. and others.
While Russia portrayed it as a goodwill gesture, it comes as the Kremlin's troops have become bogged down in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance that has thwarted President Vladimir Putin's hopes for a quick military victory.
Late last week, and again on Tuesday, Russia seemed to roll back its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had not seen anything indicating talks were progressing in a “constructive way,” and he suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention.”
“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 brutalisation of Ukraine.” He added, “If they somehow believe that an effort to subjugate only the eastern part of Ukraine or the southern part of Ukraine ... can succeed, then once again they are profoundly fooling themselves.”
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 did not immediately spell out what that would mean in practical terms.
Ukraine's military said it has noted withdrawals of some forces around Kyiv and Chernihiv.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN “we haven't seen anything to corroborate” reports of Russia withdrawing significant forces from around Kyiv. “But what we have seen over the last couple of days is they have stopped trying to advance on Kyiv.”
Rob Lee, a military expert at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted: “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.”
Negotiators from Russia and Ukraine met Tuesday in Istanbul, their first face-to-face talks in two weeks.
Earlier talks, held in person in Belarus or by video, made no progress toward ending the more than month-long war that has killed thousands and driven over 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including almost 4 million who have fled the country.
Fomin suggested there had been progress Tuesday, saying “negotiations on preparing an agreement on Ukraine's neutrality and non-nuclear status, as well as on giving Ukraine security guarantees, are turning to practical matters.”
Ukraine's team, meanwhile, set out a detailed framework for a peace deal under which the country would remain neutral but its 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 said it would also be willing to hold talks over a 15-year period on the future of the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized by Russia in 2014, with both countries agreeing not to use their armed forces to resolve the issue in the meantime.
Russia's views on the proposals were not immediately clear.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the talks had made “meaningful” progress and the two sides had reached “a consensus and common understanding” on some issues.
He said the meeting would be followed by a one between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at an unspecified time. A meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents is also “on the agenda,” he said.
Moscow has demanded, among other things that Ukraine drop any hope of joining the NATO alliance, which it sees as a threat.
Ahead of the talks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality. Zelenskyy also said he was open to compromise over the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years.
But even as the negotiators assembled in Istanbul, Russian forces hit an oil depot in western Ukraine late Monday and blasted a gaping hole Tuesday morning in a nine-story government administration building in the southern port city of Mykolaiv. At least seven people were killed in that attack, Zelenskyy said.
“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.” In other developments:
— 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.
— Bloomberg said it has suspended operations in Russia and Belarus. Customers in the two countries won't be able to access any Bloomberg financial products, it said.
— In the room at the Istanbul talks was Roman Abramovich, a longtime ally of Putin who has been sanctioned by Britain and the European Union. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Chelsea football team owner has been serving as an unofficial mediator approved by both countries.
But mystery about his role has been deepened by news reports that he may have been poisoned during an earlier round of talks.
In fighting that has devolved into a back-and-forth stalemate, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital, Kyiv, Zelenskyy said late Monday. But he warned that Russian troops were regrouping to take the area back.
Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation that left a devastated landscape.
Arriving in the town Monday shortly afterward, The Associated Press saw the bodies of two Russian soldiers in the woods, and Russian tanks sat burned and twisted. A red “Z” marked a Russian truck, its windshield fractured, near stacked boxes of ammunition. Ukrainian forces on top of a tank flashed victory signs. Dazed residents lined up amid charred buildings, seeking aid.
It was unclear where the Russian troops went and under what circumstances they fled.
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.
Reinforcing what the military said last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that “liberating Donbas” is now Moscow's main objective.
While that presents a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it has also raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country and force it to surrender a swath of its territory. (AP)