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Scepticism greets Russian pledge to deescalate around Kyiv

Scepticism greets Russian pledge to deescalate around Kyiv

KYIV: Ukraine and Western allies waited today (Mar 30) for signs Moscow was “radically” reducing military activity around Kyiv, as promised in peace talks, with scepticism high after Washington warned Russian troops were being repositioned and not withdrawn.


Wednesday 30 March 2022, 10:48AM

A Ukrainian tank steers his way on a road in the northeastern city of Trostianets yesterday (Mar 29). Photo: AFP

A Ukrainian tank steers his way on a road in the northeastern city of Trostianets yesterday (Mar 29). Photo: AFP

Both sides called talks in Istanbul “meaningful” and “positive”, in sharp contrast to previous rounds of discussions, raising hopes after more than a month of war that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Russia’s deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said there was progress on “the neutrality and non-nuclear status” of Ukraine - two central Russian concerns.

And he said Russia would “radically, by several times reduce the military activity” around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernigiv.

But the pledge was met with scepticism in Ukraine and Western capitals, with the Pentagon saying Russia had merely repositioned a “small number” of forces near Kyiv, but could be preparing a “major offensive” elsewhere.

The “vast majority” of Russian forces around Kyiv remained in place, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

“We’ve only seen a small number begin to move away from Kyiv, mostly to the north.

“Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv,” the Pentagon spokesman added, but “it does not mean that the threat to Kyiv is over”.

Ukraine’s military also warned the withdrawal of Russian troops around Kyiv and Chernigiv “is probably a rotation of individual units and aims to mislead”.

On the ground overnight, air raid sirens sounded several times in the capital and continued into the morning.

We’ll see if they follow through’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described “positive” signs from the Istanbul talks, which are expected to continue via video, but said there were no plans to let down defences.

The signals “do not drown out the explosions or Russian shells”, he said in a late video address yesterday, urging no talk of lifting sanctions on Moscow until the war is over.

Ukraine’s Western allies said they had no plans to ease measures taken to punish Russia for the invasion.

“We’ll see if they follow through on what they’re suggesting,” US President Joe Biden said after speaking with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, who vowed no let-up in sanctions.

Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands yesterday announced 42 Russian diplomats would be told to leave, with Moscow in turn expelling 10 diplomats from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Still, the face-to-face talks in Istanbul marked the first sign of progress in discussions to end the conflict, with Kyiv’s negotiator David Arakhamia saying there were “sufficient” conditions for Zelensky to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And optimism over the apparent progress sent European and US stock markets up, while oil prices fell by 5% as supply fears eased, and the ruble surged 10% against the dollar.

Moscow had already signalled last weekend that it was dialling back its war goals, focusing its military resources on capturing the eastern Donbas region.

In recent days, Ukraine’s fighters have recaptured territory including the strategic Kyiv suburb of Irpin, and Britain’s defence ministry said overnight “it is almost certain that the Russian offensive has failed in its objective to encircle Kyiv”.

“It is highly likely that Russia will seek to divert combat power from the north to their offensive in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (of Donbas) in the east,” the ministry said.

Death everywhere’

Some 20,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict so far, according to Zelensky, though the number of casualties could not be independently verified.

Yesterday a Russian missile strike on the southern town of Mykolaiv left at least 12 dead and 33 wounded, Ukrainian officials said.

“I was having breakfast in my apartment,” Donald, 69, a retired Canadian postal worker with Ukrainian residency told AFP. “I heard a whoosh, then a boom and my windows rattled.”

Another local resident, Viktor Gaivonenko, who was helping clean up the debris, said: “Putin is a bastard. That’s all there is to it.”

There was also no progress for the estimated 160,000 people still trapped with little food, water or medicine in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

Russian forces have encircled the city and their steady and indiscriminate bombardment has killed at least 5,000 people, but possibly as many as 10,000, according to one senior Ukrainian official.

France, Greece and Turkey have been trying to organise a mass evacuation of civilians from the city, but talks between French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin ended yesterday without a deal.

Civilians who have managed to escape Mariupol describe a place with “death everywhere”.

“We buried our neighbours, we saw death everywhere and even my children saw it,” said Mariia Tsymmerman, who fled to Zaporizhzhia two weeks ago but is now making the perilous journey back to deliver supplies and help others leave.

“I know a woman who killed her own dog to feed her children,” she said.

Lavrov makes first China visit since Ukraine war

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in China today in his first visit to the key ally since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine last month.

In a post on its Weibo social media account, the Russian embassy in Beijing confirmed Lavrov had landed in the eastern city of Huangshan, posting photos of delegates descending from a plane and being met by health officials in hazmat suits.

Lavrov will attend a series of meetings hosted by China to discuss ways to help Afghanistan. Diplomats from the United States and the Taliban-led country’s neighbours are also expected to attend.

But Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine is likely to loom large over proceedings.

Unlike many Western nations, China has refused to condemn the invasion and has lagged behind many other countries in providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Beijing has said Foreign Minister Wang Yi will collectively meet with representatives at the meeting, but it is not clear whether he will meet one-on-one with Lavrov.

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