Talks open in Turkey as Russia says it will reduce attacks on northern Ukraine

Soldiers walk toward a checkpoint.
Ukrainian soldiers arrive to reinforce one of the final checkpoints before the front lines near Brovary, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Negotiators on both sides are tempering expectations ahead of a new round of talks amid seesawing gains and losses on the battlefield.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators opened a new round of talks Tuesday to try to halt the war between their nations, with Moscow saying that it would reduce attacks on northern Ukraine in what it characterized, in part, as a gesture of goodwill.

The statement by Russian defense officials that they would curb assaults around Kyiv and the hard-hit city of Chernihiv came as Ukrainian troops continued to mount stiff resistance in those areas. Russian forces have been bogged down outside the capital for weeks, unable to break through into the heart of the city. In a sign that a reduction in attacks might already have begun, no new missile attacks were reported overnight in Kyiv.

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.

And it remains unclear whether Moscow’s recent statements about shifting its military focus to eastern Ukraine — which is home to a pro-Russia separatist movement — represent a real reevaluation of the aim of seizing Kyiv and toppling the Ukrainian government or a temporary move to allow bogged-down Russian forces to regroup and prepare a heavier onslaught.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks in Turkey, the fifth round since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24, representatives from both sides tried to temper expectations.

A peace sign in the yellow and blue of Ukraine stands near the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz

SANTA CRUZ UKRAINE RELIEF

How to help

Lookout is compiling a running list of efforts around Santa Cruz County to help those affected by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Please let us know if we’ve missed anything by emailing us here.

Ongoing: Capitola’s Sante Adairius Rustic Ales has released an IPA called Platform 4, with proceeds from sales going to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit helping to feed Ukrainian refugees throughout the region. Platform 4 is available at both its Santa Cruz and Capitola locations. Follow Sante Adairius here for updates.

Ongoing: Pacific Cookie Company is selling a tower of a dozen cookies in the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine, with proceeds going to World Central Kitchen. Available at its Pacific Avenue store and online; details here.

Ongoing: Santa Cruz’s Sugar Bakery is donating proceeds from sales of its signature macarons to Ukraine relief. Follow here for details and updates.

Ongoing: Santa Cruz’s Temple Beth El is encouraging community members to donate to the Ukraine Crisis Fund from the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Details here.

Ongoing: Links to charitable organizations operating in and around Ukraine from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County.

Oct. 3: Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha will perform at downtown Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center, with net proceeds going to Ukraine relief fund Come Back Alive. Details here.

TBA: San Lorenzo Valley native chef Jessica Yarr has a pair of fundraisers in the works: a weekly soup pre-order, with 10% of proceeds going to the nonprofit Voices of Children Foundation, and an April fundraiser with baker Jennifer Latham, formerly of San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery. Sign up for Yarr’s newsletter here for more information, and follow her Eastern Europe-focused pop-up Chickenfoot here. Yarr raised $2,400 for nonprofit Sunflower of Peace with an event the first weekend of March.

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.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking in a call with journalists Tuesday, said the results would be known “today or tomorrow” as to “whether there is something promising or not” from talks.

Previously, 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.

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 Ukrainian defense ministry says Kyiv remains in danger, despite Russia’s statements on shifting its focus to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking on national TV on Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian military would “concentrate attention and our main efforts on achieving the primary objective — that is, the liberation of Donbas.” As justification for its invasion, the Kremlin has alleged that Russian speakers in Donbas are being subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Ukrainian government, an allegation that the U.S. and other nations have rejected as false.

Despite the talk of a scaled-back Russian offensive, Western Ukraine, which has hitherto been spared a large-scale assault, has 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 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.

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 might 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.” 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 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.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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