Russia scaling back military operations near Kyiv: deputy defense minister – National

Russia announced Tuesday it will “fundamentally” scale back military operations near Ukraine’s capital and a northern city, as talks to end the grinding war brought the outlines of a possible deal into view.

Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the change on the battlefield was meant to increase trust at the talks after several rounds of negotiations failed to halt what has devolved into a bloody campaign of attrition.

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The announcement was met with skepticism from the US and others.

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 roll back its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is gaining control of the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

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Click to play video: 'At least 8 dead in Ukraine's Mykolaiv after rocket hits regional HQ, officials say'







At least 8 dead in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv after rocket hits regional HQ, officials say


At least 8 dead in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv after rocket hits regional HQ, officials say

US 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.”

Volunteers assemble sand bags to cover and protect the Monument to Princess Olga, St. Andrew the Apostle and the educators Cyril and Methodius in Kyiv on March 29 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Even as negotiators from the two sides assembled in Istanbul, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 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, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

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

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.

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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 pulling back 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 US-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.”

The meeting Tuesday in Istanbul was the first time negotiators from Russia and Ukraine talked face-to-face 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 four million who have fled the country.

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Click to play video: 'BC man volunteering in Ukraine says fighting there has intensified'







BC man volunteering in Ukraine says fighting there has intensified


BC man volunteering in Ukraine says fighting there has intensified

Fomin suggests there had been progress this time, 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 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 US, 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, seized by Russia in 2014.

Ukrainian soldiers stand in front of the regional government headquarters of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, following a Russian attack on March 29. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says seven people were killed in a missile strike on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolayiv.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

The Kremlin has demanded among other things that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO, which it sees as a threat.

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

Over the past several days, Ukrainian forces have mounted counterattacks and reclaimed ground on the outskirts of Kyiv and other areas. They 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.

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Ukrainian forces also seized back 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.

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.

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Click to play video: 'Is Russia's strategy shifting to split Ukraine apart?'







Is Russia’s strategy shifting to split Ukraine apart?


Is Russia’s strategy shifting to split Ukraine apart?

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.

— Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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