Talks open as Russia and Ukraine battle outside major cities

Talks open as Russia and Ukraine battle outside major cities

Turkey’s leader told Russian and Ukrainian negotiators that “the whole world is waiting” for their nations to stop fighting as they began talks in Istanbul on Tuesday to end a conflict already well on the way to becoming a bloody war of attrition.

The latest round of negotiations — the fifth since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24 — come as Ukrainian forces continue to fend off enemy troops on the outskirts of Kyiv, which reported no new missile attacks overnight in a rare moment of quiet for the capital. But regional officials reported shelling elsewhere Tuesday, including an attack that partially destroyed a government building in the southeastern port city of Mykolaiv, and an oil depot hit by a missile in Rivne in the northwest.

Ahead of the Turkey meeting, representatives from both nations tempered expectations.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv was seeking to address “humanitarian questions” at least and a “sustainable” cease-fire at most. “We do not trade in people, land and sovereignty,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the world needed to “stop pandering” to Ukraine, accusing Kyiv on Monday of only “seeking to generate an image of negotiation” in its demands for direct discussions between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkish security personnel stand guard at the site of talks Tuesday between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Istanbul.

(Emrah Gurel / Associated Press)

The stalemate at the negotiating table up till now appeared to match the situation on the ground in Ukraine, which in recent days has seen a seesaw of gains and losses for both sides after nearly five weeks of armed hostilities.

The British Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that Russians had backed away from “a number of positions” around Kyiv but warned that they remained a “significant threat” to the capital.

The analysis matched that of the Ukrainian military and Zelensky, who said overnight that it was “too early to talk about security” in suburban areas such as Irpin, which Ukraine said it had “liberated” from Russian control. The Ukraine defense ministry says Kyiv remains in danger, despite Russia’s recent statements that it would shift its focus to eastern areas of nation.

Western Ukraine, which has hitherto been spared a large-scale assault, has also seen stepped-up attacks in recent days. Authorities in the city of Lviv reported that two missiles were shot down Monday, two days after a pair of missiles hit targets in the city, a fuel depot and a defense compound. No fatalities were reported.

Russia has been targeting fuel supplies across the country in recent days, including strikes late Sunday on an oil-storage facility in the western city of Lutsk.

In a new report Tuesday, the Ukrainian military said that more than 60 religious buildings, largely belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, had been destroyed in the war, mostly around Kyiv and eastern areas.

And a national telecom company, Ukrtelecom, said it was knocked offline Monday after a cyberattack. Yurii Shchyhol, an official at the State Special Communications Service, blamed “the enemy.” He said the company limited phone and internet access for customers in order to maintain coverage for the military.

Officials in some of the worst-hit areas, including the battered northeastern city of Cherhiniv and the southern port city of Mariupol, have pleaded for international aid and an end to daily attacks.

In Chernihiv, where the mayor said a Russian blast destroyed a bridge on a key aid route last week, the shelling has been near-constant, according to local officials. The city is about 90 miles from Kyiv.

In Mariupol, which has lost the majority of its prewar population of 430,000, the mayor said that close to 5,000 people have died amid strikes that have reduced the city to rubble. The number has not been independently verified.

Man next to remains of a Russian tank

A resident of Trostsyanets, in northeastern Ukraine, next to parts of a destroyed Russian tank.

(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

Mariupol is “in the hands of the occupiers today,” Mayor Vadym Boichenko, who spoke from outside the city, said Monday. Boichenko said Russians controlled significant swaths of land in the area.

A Russian takeover of the city would give Putin a corridor to the Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 but which has no land connection to Russia.

Western intelligence and military analysts said they suspect Russia may want to split Ukraine and take strategic southern and eastern areas, either through force or negotiations.

Zelensky said over the weekend that he could compromise on “the complex issue of Donbas,” an eastern region with a pro-Russia separatist movement. But he has also insisted, seemingly irreconcilably, that “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt.”

The Ukrainian leader said that he was willing to discuss Ukraine becoming “neutral” and dropping aspirations to join the NATO defense alliance as long as Ukrainians were able to vote on the matter.

In an overnight video, Zelensky also criticized international sanctions on Russia as too weak. Sanctions must be “effective and substantial,” he said, appealing once again for more weapons from allies. Zelensky has sharpened his criticism of Western nations in recent days after his pleas for tanks and warplanes were repeatedly turned down.

“Ukrainians should not die just because someone cannot find enough courage to hand over the necessary weapons to Ukraine,” he said. “Fear always makes you an accomplice.”

Speaking on Monday to PBS, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow had entered a phase of “total war” that included the West’s attempt to strangle the Russian economy through heavy sanctions.

He also said Russia has long feared NATO expanding to include Ukraine: “For a couple of decades, we were telling the collective West that we are afraid of your NATO’s moving eastwards. We, too, are afraid of NATO getting closer to our borders with its military infrastructure. Please take care of that. Don’t push us into the corner.”

During the interview, which was conducted in English, Peskov clarified earlier remarks he made on CNN suggesting Russia had not taken nuclear attack off the table. “No one is thinking about using” or “even about [the] idea of using a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Russia’s invasion, which began Feb. 24, has killed at least 1,150 civilians, according to the United Nations, which acknowledges that the true toll is probably far higher. More than 10 million people have been displaced, including 3.8 million refugees.

McDonnell reported from Lviv and Kaleem from London. Marcus Yam contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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