(NewsNation) — Russia’s deputy defense minister said that Moscow has decided it will “fundamentally cut back” operations near Kyiv, Chernihiv “to increase trust” in talks as in-person conversations resumed Tuesday in Turkey.
Ukraine’s military said it had noted withdrawals around Kyiv and Chernihiv, though the Pentagon said it could not corroborate the reports.
The meeting in Istanbul was focused on securing a cease-fire and guarantees for Ukraine’s security, issues that have been at the heart of previous unsuccessful negotiations.
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 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.
However, 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 brutalization 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.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Richard Newton cast doubt on the notion that Russia is withdrawing from Kyiv during an appearance on NewsNation Prime. “I’ve negotiated with the Russians years ago when I was on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with strategic arms reductions talks and so forth, and frankly, you can’t trust them,” he said.
Ahead of the talks, the Ukrainian president said his country is prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and is open to compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas — comments that might lend momentum to negotiations. But he warned the “ruthless war” continued and that Ukrainians were paying with their lives for the West’s hesitancy on imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow.
A longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been sanctioned by Britain and the EU, the billionaire has been playing an unofficial mediating role. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Abramovich has been “ensuring certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides” and that his role was approved by both countries.
Putin’s aim of a quick military victory has been met by stiff Ukrainian resistance, but still, hopes were not high for a breakthrough. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she thought the Russian president was “not serious about talks.”
In fighting that has devolved into a back-and-forth stalemate, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital, Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday. But he warned that Russian troops were regrouping to take the area back.
“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “This is a ruthless war against our nation, against our people, against our children.”
He also accused Western countries of not going far enough in either sanctioning Moscow or supporting Ukraine with weapons. As a result, Ukrainians were paying with their lives, he said.
“If someone is afraid of Russia, if he or she is afraid to make the necessary decisions that are important to us, in particular for us to get planes, tanks, necessary artillery, shells, it makes these people responsible for the catastrophe created by Russian troops in our cities, too,” he said. “Fear always makes you an accomplice.”
A missile struck an oil depot in western Ukraine late Monday, the second attack on oil facilities in a region that has been spared the worst of the fighting. On Tuesday morning, an explosion blasted a hole in a nine-story administration building in Mykolaiv, a southern port city that Russia has unsuccessfully tried to capture. Ukraine authorities said the strike killed 12 and wounded 22 others. The search for more bodies is continuing.
A gaping hole could be seen in the center of the building in a photo posted on the Telegram channel of the regional governor, Vitaliy Kim. He said most people escaped the building and rescuers were searching for a handful of missing people.
“It’s terrible. They waited for people to go to work” before striking the building, he said. “I overslept. I’m lucky.”
Earlier Russia-Ukraine talks, held in person in Belarus or by video, failed to make progress on ending a more than month-long war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.
Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelenskyy indicated over the weekend he was open to that, saying Ukraine was ready to declare its neutrality, but he has stressed that the country needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.
As well as Irpin, Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation that has left a landscape devastated by war.
Ukraine has said it would try to evacuate civilians from three southern cities on Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said humanitarian corridors would run from heavily bombed Mariupol as well as Enerhodar and Melitopol. The latter two cities are under Russian control, but Vereshchuk didn’t address to what extent Moscow had agreed to the corridors, except for saying 880 people fled Mariupol a day earlier without an agreement in place.
In other developments:
— The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog 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. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said the war “is putting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and other facilities with radioactive material in unprecedented danger.”
— 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 a post Tuesday.
— Bloomberg News said it has suspended its operations in Russia and Belarus. Customers in both countries won’t be able to access any Bloomberg financial products and trading functions for Russian securities were disabled in line with international sanctions, it said. Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $40 million, meanwhile, in support for Ukrainians and refugees.
Putin’s ground forces have become bogged down because of the stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, combined with what Western officials say are Russian tactical missteps, poor morale, shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, and other problems.
In response, Russia appeared to be concentrating more on Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years, the official said.
While that raised a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it has also raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country, forcing it to surrender a swath of its territory. Still, Zelenskyy’s comments that he was open to compromise on the region indicated a possible path for negotiations.