Ukraine, Russia set for more talks as civilians in besieged cities see no sign of respite

The latest:

  • Russian, Ukrainian delegations prepare for in-person talks to begin Tuesday in Turkey.
  • Kremlin says it is alarmed by US President Joe Biden’s comments that Russian President Vladimir Putin must not remain in power.
  • Mayor of Mariupol says buses waiting to evacuate trapped civilians but Russia denying safe passage.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hints at concessions while stressing that ‘territorial integrity’ remains Kyiv’s priority.
  • What questions do you have about Russia’s assault on Ukraine? Send them in an email to ask@cbc.ca.

Ukraine and Russia were preparing on Monday for the first face-to-face peace talks in more than two weeks, but a senior US official said Russian President Vladimir Putin did not appear ready to make compromises to end the war.

Ukrainian officials also played down the chances of a major breakthrough at the talks, which were expected to start Tuesday in Istanbul after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Putin on Sunday.

But the fact that they were taking place in person at all — for the first time since an acrimonious meeting between foreign ministers on March 10 — was a sign of shifts behind the scenes as Russia’s invasion has become bogged down.

On the ground, there was no sign of respite for civilians in besieged cities, especially the devastated port of Mariupol, whose mayor said 160,000 people were still trapped inside and Russia was blocking attempts to evacuate them.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks past a destroyed Russian vehicle in the village of Mala Rogan, east of Kharkiv, after Ukrainian troops retook the village on Monday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

But the mayor of Irpin, near Kyiv, said Ukrainian forces had seized back full control of the town. “We have good news today — Irpin has been liberated,” Oleksandr Markushyn said, noting that further attacks were expected and the city would defend itself. Reuters could not immediately verify the information.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city and one of its hardest hit, people were sweeping rubble out of a classroom on the third story of a school, where a wall had been blown out by a missile before dawn.

“This is a civilian target. It’s a school!” said Oleksandr, who had been sheltering with his mother on a lower floor of the school after their own neighborhood was hit. “They’ve not been able to take the city, so they’ve decided to destroy it.”

Zelensky stresses ‘territorial integrity’

Russia and Ukraine said their delegations would arrive in Turkey on Monday, a day before the talks are set to begin.

Ukrainian officials have recently suggested Russia could now be more willing to compromise, as any hope it may have held of imposing a new government on Kyiv slipped away in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance and heavy Russian losses.

But a senior US State Department official said Putin did not give that impression. “Everything I have seen is he is not willing to compromise at this point,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity after Ukraine’s president sketched out a potential way to end the crisis over the weekend.

Russia’s military signaled last week it was shifting focus to concentrate on expanding territory held by separatists in Eastern Ukraine, a month after having committed the bulk of its huge invasion force to a failed assault on the capital Kyiv.

Ukrainian soldiers carry the coffin of 32-year-old senior lieutenant Pavlo Chernikov during his funeral after he was killed in action, at the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul Church in Lviv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press)

But Ukraine said it saw no sign Russia had given up a plan to surround the capital, where the mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said 100 people had been killed, including four children, and 82 multi-storey buildings had been destroyed. It was not possible to verify the figures.

When the sides last met in person, Ukraine accused Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov of ignoring his pleas to discuss a ceasefire, while Lavrov said a halt to fighting was not even on the agenda.

Since then, they have repeatedly met via video link, rather than face to face. Both sides have publicly discussed a formula under which Ukraine might accept some kind of formal neutral status. But neither has budgeted over Russia’s territorial demands, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and eastern territories known as the Donbas, which Moscow demands Kyiv cede to separatists.

“I don’t think there will be any breakthrough on the main issues,” Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said on Monday.

In an interview with Russian journalists over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned some form of compromise involving Donbas, although he did not suggest this might involve ceding the territory. In his latest comments overnight, he made clear that “territorial integrity” remained Kyiv’s priority.

Kremlin calls Biden’s remarks ‘alarming’

The Kremlin, which regularly denounces the West over Ukraine in strong terms, has so far given only a measured response to US President Joe Biden’s surprise comment about Putin at the end of a speech in Warsaw on the weekend: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Washington and NATO have emphasized that removing Putin is not US or alliance policy, and on Sunday Biden said he was not calling for regime change.

WATCH | Odesa largely spared so far but remains vigilant:

Odesa remains unscathed, purpose vigilant

Odesa, Ukraine, has been spared from any major Russian attacks so far, but residents of the major port city say that doesn’t mean they can relax. 2:30

Asked on Monday about Biden’s comment, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “This is a statement that is certainly alarming.

“We will continue to track the statements of the US president in the most attentive way,” Peskov told reporters. Earlier Peskov had said it was up to the Russian people to pick their leader.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to disarm and “de-nazify” its neighbour. Kyiv and the West consider this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion to try to topple the elected Ukrainian government.

Evacuation efforts frustrated

Last week, Ukrainian forces went on the offensive, pushing Russian troops back in areas around Kyiv, the northeast and the southwest. Meanwhile, Russia has kept up pressure in the southeast near separatist areas, including its devastating siege of Mariupol, razed to the ground while tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped inside.

Refugees from Ukraine wait to be transported at the Medyka border crossing after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border in southeastern Poland on Monday. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Mayor Vadym Boichenko, who has escaped the city and was speaking from an undisclosed location, said 26 buses were waiting to evacuate some of the 160,000 trapped civilians but that Russia was denying safe passage.

“The situation in the city remains difficult. People are beyond the line of humanitarian catastrophe,” Boichenko said on national television. “We need to completely evacuate Mariupol.”

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said there were no plans to open corridors to evacuate civilians from besieged cities on Monday, because of intelligence reports of possible Russian “provocations” along the routes.

Elsewhere, Russia’s armored columns are bogged down, with trouble resupplying and making little or no progress, despite pounding residential areas.

Volunteers cover a monument of Princess Olga, Apostle Andrew, Cyril and Methodius with sandbags for protection as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the center of Kyiv on Sunday. (Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

“As of today, the enemy is regrouping its forces, but they cannot advance anywhere in Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Monday.

Britain’s Defense Ministry also said there had been no major change in Russia’s positions in the past 24 hours, with most Russian gains near Mariupol and heavy fighting underway there.

Ukraine’s General Staff said Kyiv defense forces were holding back Russian troops trying to break through from the northeast and northwest and take over key roads and settlements.

In the south, Ukrainian forces were focused on defending the cities of Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolayiv.

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