Russia’s pledge to scale back in Ukraine draws scepticism

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Russia’s pledge to scale back some military operations in Ukraine drew scepticism even as the two nations planned to return Wednesday (local time) to talks that could produce a framework for ending the war that has imposed an increasingly punishing toll.

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

“We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” he said in his nightly video address to the Ukrainian people. “But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.”

It was a bitter reality check in a rare moment of optimism five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.

Earlier, Ukraine’s delegation at the conference, held in Istanbul, laid out a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.

Moscow’s public reaction was positive, and the negotiations were expected to resume Wednesday (local time) in Istanbul.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander 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 spell out what that would mean in practical terms.

Zelenskyy said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia’s hand, adding that “we shouldn’t let down our guard” because the invading army can still carry out attacks.

“Ukrainians are not naïve people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results.”

The US and others also expressed doubts about Russia’s intentions.

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

US President Joe Biden, asked whether 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’ll see. I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”

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

It wouldn’t be the first time. In the tense buildup to the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment onto rail cars and preparing to return to their home bases after completing exercises. At the time, Putin was signalling interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.

Western officials say Moscow is now reinforcing troops in the Donbas in a bid to encircle Ukraine’s forces. And Russia’s deadly siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombarded cities. The latest satellite imagery from commercial provider Maxar Technologies showed 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’re focused on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine.”

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

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

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US has detected small numbers 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 soon to say how extensive the Russian movements may be or where the troops will be repositioned.

“It does not mean the threat to Kyiv is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv.” He said Russian airstrikes against Kyiv continued.

Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted of the Russian announcement: “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 in Istanbul was the first time negotiators from Russia and Ukraine talked face-to-face in two weeks. Earlier talks were held in person in Belarus or by video.

Among other things, the Kremlin has demanded all along that Ukraine drop any hope of joining Nato.

Ukraine’s delegation offered a detailed framework for a peace deal 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 “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.

Vladimir Medinsky, 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.”

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