KYIV, Ukraine ( Associated Press) – Russia’s promise to scale back some military operations in Ukraine has sparked skepticism, a bitter reality check in a rare moment of optimism five weeks after what turned into a bloody war of attrition.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there was no reason to believe that Russia’s announcement that it would reduce military activities near Kiev, the capital, as well as in the northern city of Chernihiv, given what was happening on the ground.
“We can call the signals we hear in the negotiations positive,” he said in his nightly video speech to the Ukrainian people. “But those signals do not stop the explosions of Russian shells.”
Yet Tuesday’s talks outlined what could eventually be a framework to end the war that has taken an increasingly punitive toll, with thousands dead and more than 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country. Talks are expected to resume on Wednesday, but with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu making “significant” progress, the two parties have decided to return home for consultations.
At the conference in Istanbul, the Ukrainian delegation laid down a framework according to which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by a variety of other nations.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin has said that in the meantime, Moscow will “fundamentally cut back” military activities in the direction of Kiev and Chernihiv “in order to” increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations. “
He did not spell out what that would mean in practical terms.
Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, said negotiators would take Ukraine’s proposals to Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Moscow would give an answer, but he did not say when.
Cavusoglu said he expected a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at an unspecified time. Another between the presidents of the two countries is also “on the agenda,” he said. The Russian state news agency Tass reported that Moscow’s delegates arrived back in Russia late Tuesday.
In the wake of the spate of proposals and a degree of muted optimism, Zelenskyy warned the world and its own people not to put themselves ahead. He said Ukrainian troops had forced Russia’s hand, adding that “we must not give up our vigilance” because the invading army can still carry out attacks.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of invasion and during the last eight years of war in the Donbas that you can only trust concrete results.”
The US and others have also expressed doubts about Russia’s intentions.
While Moscow portrayed it as a gesture of benevolence, its ground troops were stranded and suffered heavy losses in their attempts to conquer Kiev and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin appeared to be lowering its war goals, saying its “main goal” was to gain control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
“We are judging the Russian military machine by its actions, not just its words,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News on Wednesday. “There is, of course, some skepticism that it will regroup to attack again rather than get seriously involved in diplomacy.”
He added that “of course the door to diplomacy will always be left open, but I do not think you can trust what comes out of Putin’s war machine.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that Russia had declared a focus on Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region “probably a tacit acknowledgment that it is struggling to maintain more than one significant advance.”
“Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and provide,” the ministry said in a statement. “Such activity puts further pressure on Russia’s already tense logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is facing in reorganizing its units in forward areas within Ukraine.”
It noted that the move was unlikely to bring relief to civilians in cities suffering from relentless Russian bombing, and said it expected Moscow to “continue to compensate for its reduced ground maneuverability through mass artillery and missile attacks.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, asked if the Russian announcement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue his assault, saying: “We will see. I do not read anything in it. I do not see what their actions are. “
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Russian indications of a withdrawal could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and divert attention.”
This would not be the first time. In the tense build-up to the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment onto train carriages and getting ready to return to their home bases after completing exercises. Putin at the time indicated interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.
Western officials say Moscow is now stepping up troops in the Donbas in an effort to encircle Ukraine’s forces. And Russia’s deadly siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other devastated cities. The latest satellite images from commercial supplier Maxar Technologies have shown 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 are focused on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is continuing to brutalize Ukraine.”
Even as negotiators gathered, Putin’s forces blew a gaping hole in a nine-story government administration building in a strike on the southern port city of Mykolaiv, which killed at least 12 people, emergency officials said. The search for more bodies in the rubble continued.
“It’s awful. They were waiting for people to go to work” before closing the building, “said Regional Governor Vitaliy Kim.” I fell asleep. I am happy.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. had detected small numbers of Russian ground forces moving away from the Kyiv region, but that it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, “not an actual withdrawal.”
He said it was too early to say how extensive the Russian movements might be or where the troops would be repositioned.
The meeting in Istanbul was the first time that negotiators from Russia and Ukraine spoke face to face in two weeks. Earlier talks were held in person in Belarus or by video.
Among other things, the Kremlin has repeatedly demanded that Ukraine abandon any hope of joining NATO.
Ukraine’s delegation presented a detailed framework for a peace agreement under which a neutral Ukraine’s security would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the US, Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, in an arrangement similar to NATO’s “attack on one is an attack on all” principle.
Ukraine has said it will also be prepared to hold talks over a 15-year period on the future of the Crimean peninsula, which was seized by Russia in 2014.
Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, said on Russian TV that the Ukrainian proposals were a “step towards meeting us halfway, a clear positive fact.”
He warned that the parties had not reached an agreement for a long time, but said: “We now know how to move further towards compromise. We do not just mark time in conversations. ”
This story has been updated to correct that face-to-face discussions are not expected on Wednesday. ___
Karmanau reports from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine