Russian pledge to shrink Ukraine arouses skepticism

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Ukrainian soldiers from the Armed Forces 103rd Separate Territorial Defense Brigade take part in a training exercise, at an undisclosed location near Lviv, western Ukraine, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo /Nariman El-Mofty)

PA

Russia’s promise to scale back some military operations in Ukraine has been met with skepticism, a bitter reality check in a rare moment of optimism five weeks after what has turned into a bloody war of attrition.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there was no reason to believe Russia’s announcement that it would reduce military activity near the capital kyiv, as well as in the northern city of Chernihiv, counting given what is happening on the ground.

“We can call these signals that we hear during the negotiations positive,” he said in his nightly video address to the Ukrainian people. “But these signals do not silence the explosions of Russian shells.”

Still, Tuesday’s talks sketched out what could end up being a framework for ending the war that has exacted an increasingly painful toll, with thousands dead and more than 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country. Talks were due to resume on Wednesday, but with what Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called “significant” progress, the two sides decided to return home for consultations.

At the Istanbul conference, the Ukrainian delegation established a framework within which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow would meanwhile “fundamentally…reduce military activities in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “strengthen mutual trust and create conditions for new negotiations.”

He did not specify what this would mean in practice.

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said negotiators would present Ukraine’s proposals to Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Moscow would provide a response, but he did not say when.

Cavusoglu said he expected a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at an unspecified time. Another between the presidents of the two countries is also “on the agenda”, he said. Russian state news agency Tass reported that delegates from Moscow returned to Russia on Tuesday evening.

In the wake of the flurry of proposals and some muted optimism, Zelenskyy warned the world and his own people not to get ahead of themselves. He said Ukrainian troops had forced Russia’s hand, adding that “we should not let our guard down” as the invading army can still carry out attacks.

“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and the last eight years of war in the Donbass that you can only rely on concrete results.”

The United States and others have also expressed doubts about Russia’s intentions.

While Moscow described it as a gesture of goodwill, its ground troops got bogged down and suffered heavy casualties in their attempts to seize kyiv and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin appeared to be downplaying its war aims, saying its “main objective” was to take control of the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

“We judge the Russian military machine by its actions, not just its words,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News on Wednesday. “There is obviously some skepticism that he will regroup to attack again rather than seriously engage in diplomacy.”

He added that “of course the door to diplomacy will always remain ajar, but I don’t think you can trust what comes out of the mouth of Putin’s war machine.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday that Russia’s focus on Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region “is probably a tacit admission that it is struggling to maintain more than one significant axis of advance.”

“Russian units suffering heavy losses were forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and resupply,” the ministry said in a statement. “Such activity puts additional strain on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is facing in reorganizing its units in forward areas of Ukraine.”

He noted that the change is unlikely to mean relief for civilians in cities under relentless Russian bombardment, saying he expects Moscow to “continue to compensate for its reduced ground maneuvering ability through artillery and mass missile strikes”.

US President Joe Biden, who asked if 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 will see. I don’t see anything until I see what their actions are.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the Russian indications of a rollback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and divert attention”.

It 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 wagons and preparing to return to their bases after completing drills. At the time, Putin was showing interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.

Western officials say Moscow is now bolstering its troops in the Donbass in a bid to encircle Ukrainian 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 showed hundreds of people waiting outside a grocery store amid reports of food and water shortages.

“There’s what Russia says and there’s what Russia does, and we focus on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine.”

Even as negotiators gathered, Putin’s forces gouged a gaping hole in a nine-story government administration building in a strike on the port city of Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people, authorities said emergency. The search for other bodies in the rubble continued.

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

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US had detected a small number of Russian ground forces moving away from the kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, ‘not a real withdrawal’ .

He said it was too early to say how big Russian moves might be or where troops will be repositioned.

The Istanbul meeting was the first time that negotiators from Russia and Ukraine had spoken face to face in two weeks. Previous talks have taken place in person in Belarus or via video.

Among other things, the Kremlin has always demanded that Ukraine abandon all hope of joining NATO.

The Ukrainian delegation proposed a detailed framework for a peace agreement under which the security of a neutral Ukraine would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, in an arrangement similar to “an attack on one is an attack on all”.

Ukraine has said it would also be willing to hold 15-year talks on the future of the Crimean peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014.

Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, told Russian television that the Ukrainian proposals are a “step to meet us halfway, a clearly positive fact”.

He warned that the parties are still a long way from reaching an agreement, but said: “We now know how to go further towards a compromise. We are not just marking time in the talks.

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This story has been updated to correct that face-to-face talks are not expected on Wednesday. ___

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

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine