U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Western allied nations are waiting to see whether Russia will fulfill a commitment to de-escalate attacks around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.
“We’ll see if they follow through,” Biden said after speaking by telephone with leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Italy. “There seems to be a consensus that let’s just see what they have to offer.”
Biden’s comments to reporters at the White House came after Russia’s military said earlier Tuesday at the latest round of peace talks in Turkey that it would cut back operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the move was meant to “increase trust” in the talks aimed at ending the fighting. Advances by Russian forces have stalled recently amid fierce opposition by Ukrainian fighters.
Also Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian forces will be focusing on Donbas, which includes the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. He said Moscow had largely accomplished the first stage of its “special military operation,” including degrading Ukraine’s military capacity.
Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states just days before he launched the invasion on February 24.
In Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Ukrainian and Russian negotiators before the start of talks that it was up to both sides to reach a concrete agreement and “stop this tragedy.”
An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that during Tuesday’s talks, the two sides discussed the terms of a possible cease-fire plus international security guarantees for Ukraine. The negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday.
Taking part in the talks was Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv earlier this month, and at least two senior members of the Ukrainian team. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Abramovich attended Tuesday’s talks on an informal basis. Peskov said the reports that Abramovich and the other two negotiators had been poisoned were a part of the “information war” launched by Western nations.
Just as the talks were getting underway in Istanbul, a Russian airstrike blasted a gaping hole in a government building in the Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv, leaving at least eight people trapped in the rubble.
And Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced in a video message posted on the social media site Telegram that humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war-scarred regions had opened after a one-day pause over what Kyiv called possible Russian “provocations.”
The United Nations said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed at least 10 million people out of their homes and that more than 3.8 million have fled the country.
Speaking about the peace talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on national television Monday that “the minimum program will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum program is reaching an agreement on a cease-fire.”
During an interview Sunday in a call with Russian journalists, Zelenskyy said Ukraine was open to adopting neutral status as part of a peace deal if it came with third-party guarantees and was put to a referendum.
Hours before the negotiations began Tuesday, Zelenskyy insisted that sanctions imposed by Western nations against Moscow need to be “effective and serious enough” to have the intended effect on Russia’s economy.
Zelenskyy said if Russia manages to “circumvent” the sanctions, “it creates a dangerous illusion for the Russian leadership that they can continue to afford what they are doing now. And Ukrainians pay for it with their lives. Thousands of lives.”
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. Department of Defense official has told reporters that Ukrainian troops have retaken the town of Trostyanets, near the northeastern city of Sumy, while Zelenskyy said in his Monday night speech that Ukrainian troops have liberated Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.