Russia said Tuesday that it will scale back its violent invasion of areas near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, giving the first sign of a possible breakthrough in talks aimed at persuading Moscow to end its more than month-old military assault that has left thousands dead and sent nearly 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday signaled momentum toward an agreement to freeze or end the war.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration reacted cautiously to Russia’s claim that it was pulling back its forces amid reports of ongoing attacks in other parts of the country.
President Biden suggested he is hopeful but remains highly circumspect of Russian overtures. “We’ll see,” the president said. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Russian pledges to pull back its largely stalled assaults on Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv could be an attempt to “deceive people” and deflect attention from fresh attempts to seize besieged Ukrainian cities in the south and east.
“There is what Russia says and there is what Russia does, and we’re focused on the latter,” Mr. Blinken told reporters during a visit to Morocco on Tuesday. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine.”
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Despite the official caution, U.S. and world stock markets were up again on the suggestion of good news, while the price of oil and other commodities fell.
Russian and Ukrainian officials told reporters after talks in Istanbul — the first round of talks between the two sides in more than two weeks — that a summit between Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could occur sooner than expected if a draft peace agreement can be reached over the coming days.
The progress was made despite the uproar provoked by Mr. Biden’s comments over the weekend in Poland that Mr. Putin must be driven from power for starting the war. The Kremlin’s top spokesman denounced the remarks but said they shouldn’t stand in the way of diplomacy.
“Dialogue between Russia and the United States is necessary in any case,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “One way or another, sooner or later, we will have to talk about the issues of strategic stability, security and so on.”
Mr. Biden held a conference call with other Western leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The White House readout of the call offered no reaction by the other leaders to Mr. Biden’s weekend remarks.
Mr. Zelenskyy injected momentum into the negotiations by announcing that he is prepared to declare Ukraine a neutral nation as long as its security can be guaranteed by other countries. Ukrainian officials say they will not cede any territory because of the war but have proposed to put off a final decision on contested areas such as Crimea for a decade or more.
SEE ALSO: Biden skeptical about Moscow’s plan to ‘drastically’ reduce military activity around Kyiv, Chernihiv
The Ukrainian leader, who has remained in Kyiv as the fighting raged nearby, praised his army’s “courageous and effective actions” in a video address Tuesday evening in forcing the apparent pullback by Russian forces. But he said he remained deeply skeptical of “the words coming from representatives of the country that continue fighting to destroy us.”
“We can say the signals we are receiving from the talks are positive, but they do not drown out the explosions of Russian shells,” he said. “The Russian army still has significant potential to continue attacks against our state. Therefore, we are not reducing our defensive efforts.”
Russia has pointedly demanded that Ukraine never be made a part of the U.S.-aligned NATO. But Russian negotiators responded positively when Ukraine’s delegation in Istanbul laid out a framework for Ukrainian neutrality, with the nation’s security guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow has decided to “fundamentally … cut back military activity in the direction” of Kyiv and Chernihiv. He called it a move to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
Vladimir Medinskiy, the 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 now know how to move further toward compromise. We aren’t just marking time in talks.”
Mr. Fomin stopped short of spelling out what a Russian pullback near Kyiv would mean in practical terms, and there were signs that Moscow was ramping up its attacks in other areas of Ukraine.
Even as talks were getting underway in Turkey, Russian forces blasted a gaping hole in a nine-story government administration building during an assault on the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people, emergency authorities said. CNN reported that shelling was heard in the capital of Kyiv on Tuesday evening.
Still, Ukrainian military officials said they have noticed some Russian forces digging in and, in some cases, pulling back from areas they had occupied around Kyiv and Chernihiv in recent days.
While Moscow has portrayed this as a goodwill gesture, U.S. and Western European military sources say the Russian troops have become bogged down and taken heavy losses in their bid to seize Kyiv and other cities. Military analysts say Russia’s hopes of a lightning capture of Ukraine’s main cities after the decision to invade on Feb. 24 have been frustrated by the unexpectedly tough resistance put up by Ukrainian forces.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said U.S. officials haven’t seen anything to corroborate Russian claims to be significantly pulling back from areas around Kyiv. “But what we have seen over the last couple of days is they have stopped trying to advance on Kyiv,” Mr. Kirby told CNN.
All the while, the Kremlin has appeared to be lowering its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is securing control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine — part of which has been occupied by Moscow-backed Ukrainian separatists since 2014.
Western officials say Moscow is now reinforcing troops in the Donbas in an attempt to encircle Ukraine’s best-trained and best-equipped forces, which are concentrated near the eastern region.
The Russian assault on the Black Sea port city of Mariupol has left an unknown number of civilians trapped and suffering amid the ruins of buildings destroyed after weeks of Russian rocket attacks and aerial bombings.
Several other Ukrainian cities have been reduced to ruins. Ukrainian military officials said Russian forces have destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country during the five weeks of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kyiv and in eastern Ukraine.
Other sensitive buildings have also been under attack.
The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency arrived in Ukraine on Tuesday to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. Russian forces have taken control of the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, the site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and of the active Zaporizhzhia plant, where a building was damaged in fighting.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who addressed a U.N. Security Council meeting on food security, called out Mr. Putin for launching “his premeditated, unprovoked, unjustified, and brutal invasion,” which has left nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population displaced, “including more than half of the nation’s children.”
“The World Food Program warns that 45% of people in Ukraine — nearly half of the people living in one of the world’s great breadbaskets — are concerned about having enough to eat,” Ms. Sherman said in prepared remarks.
“The impacts of Putin’s war are being felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders as well,” she said. “Ukraine and Russia are both major agricultural producers. Thirty percent of the world’s wheat exports typically come from the Black Sea region, as does 20% of the world’s corn and 75% of sunflower oil.”
European nations have continued to rally behind Ukraine and impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia. In an apparently coordinated action to tackle Russian espionage, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland and North Macedonia collectively expelled scores of Russian diplomats.
Poland last week expelled 45 Russians whom the government identified as intelligence officers using their diplomatic status as cover to operate in the country.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.