Members of the Ukrainian and Russian delegation attend the talks in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday. Reuters
Russia is promising to scale down military operations around the capital Kyiv, while Ukraine for its part is mooting the adoption of neutral status, in confidence-building steps that may help de-escalate the five-week war.
The two nations planned to return Wednesday to talks that could produce a framework for ending the war that has imposed an increasingly punishing toll.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was no reason to believe Russia's announcement that it would reduce military activity near Kyiv, the capital, as well as in the northern city of Chernihiv, given what's still happening on the ground.
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"We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” he said in his nightly video address to the Ukrainian people. "But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.”
It was a bitter reality check in a rare moment of optimism five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv. File photo
Earlier Tuesday, 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 were expected to resume Wednesday in Istanbul.
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 did not spell out what that would mean in practical terms.
Zelensky said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia’s hand, adding that "we shouldn’t let down our guard” because the invading army can still carry out attacks.
Russia’s Alexander Fomin leaves after a meeting with Ukrainian negotiators in Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters
"Ukrainians are not naïve people," he said. "Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results.”
The US and others also expressed doubts about Russia's intentions.
While Moscow portrayed it as a goodwill gesture, its ground troops have become bogged down and taken heavy losses in their bid to seize Kyiv and other cities. 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.
US 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.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to "deceive people and deflect attention.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, member of the Ukrainian delegation (centre right) speaks to the media in Istanbul. AP
It wouldn't be the first time. In the tense buildup to the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment onto rail cars and preparing to return to their home bases after completing exercises. At the time, Putin was signaling interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.
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. The latest satellite imagery from commercial provider Maxar Technologies showed hundreds of people waiting outside a grocery store amid reports of food and water 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.”
Kyiv's infrastructure ministry wrote on Telegram on Sunday that a convoy of Ukrainian supplies had left, with three ships departing from Chornomorsk and one from Odessa.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators held face-to-face talks in Istanbul on Tuesday as Ukraine resumed evacuations from territory occupied by Russian forces and clung on in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Dmytro Kuleba of Ukraine met in the Turkish resort town of Antalya earlier this month with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also attending. The discussions did not yield concrete results.
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