Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia resumed

KYIV, Ukraine — The first direct talks between Russia and Ukraine in two weeks began in Turkey on Tuesday, raising fragile hopes of progress towards ending a war that has turned into a bloody campaign of attrition.

An adviser to the Ukrainian president said the Istanbul meeting was about securing a ceasefire and guaranteeing Ukraine’s security, issues that had been at the center of previous unsuccessful talks.

Ahead of the talks, the Ukrainian president signaled that his country was ready to declare its neutrality, as demanded by Moscow, and open to compromise over the disputed eastern region of Donbass, comments that could jump-start talks. But even as the negotiators gathered, Russian troops struck an oil depot in western Ukraine and destroyed a government building in the south, killing several people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told both sides that they have a “historic responsibility” to stop hostilities.

“We believe that in a just world there will be no losers. The prolongation of the conflict does not benefit anyone,” Erdogan said, welcoming the two delegations sitting on both sides of the long table.

Ukrainian resistance

Vladimir Putin’s goal of a quick military victory was thwarted by Ukrainian resistance. But any hope engendered by the prospect of an end to the conflict has been accompanied by Western skepticism about the Russian leader’s desire for peace. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Putin was “not serious about the talks.”

In a fighting that has reached a stalemate, Ukrainian forces have recaptured Irpin, a key suburb northwest of Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday. But he warned that Russian troops were regrouping to recapture the area.

“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Mr. Zelenskiy said in his late-night video address to the nation. This is a ruthless war against our nation, against our people, against our children.”

He also criticized Western countries, which he repeatedly accused of not going far enough to punish Moscow or support Ukraine. According to him, the West’s unwillingness to supply weapons places these countries partially responsible for the destruction caused.

“Fear always makes you an accomplice,” he said.

In addition to Irpin, Ukrainian forces have regained control of Trostianets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation that left a war-torn landscape in their wake.

Arriving in the city on Monday, the Associated Press saw the bodies of two Russian soldiers abandoned in the woods and burned and mangled Russian tanks. A red Z marks a Russian truck with a shattered windshield standing next to ammunition crates. Tank-packed Ukrainian forces showed signs of victory. The stunned residents lined up in the midst of the burnt buildings, asking for help.

It is not known where the Russian troops went, under what circumstances they fled, and whether the city would remain free from them.

Meanwhile, Ukraine said it would try to evacuate civilians from three southern cities on Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said that humanitarian corridors would start from Mariupol, as well as from Energodar and Melitopol. The latter two cities are under Russian control, but Ms. Vereshchuk did not say whether Moscow accepted those corridors.

Mr. Putin’s ground forces are bogged down by stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, combined with what Western officials are calling Russian tactical errors; lack of morale; shortages of food, fuel and cold weather equipment; and other questions.

In response, Russia appears to be paying more attention to the Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years, the official said.

Another sign of a shift is Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement on Tuesday that “the liberation of Donbass” is Moscow’s main military goal.

General Shoigu, whose several public appearances this month have raised questions about his health and whereabouts, told senior military officials that Russia had largely completed the first phase of its operation and moved on to “the main goal of liberating the Donbass.”

While this represents a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it also raises concerns among Ukrainians that the Kremlin is seeking to divide the country by forcing it to cede some of its territory. Nevertheless, Mr. Zelenskiy’s comments that he is open to compromise on the region point to a possible direction for negotiations.

Attack on the oil depot

A missile hit an oil depot in western Ukraine on Monday night, marking the second strike on oil installations in an area that has not been hit by heavy fighting so far.

On Tuesday morning, an explosion tore through a nine-story administrative building in Nikolaev, the southern port city that Russia has unsuccessfully attempted to take over.

The rocket attack killed seven people and injured 22, Zelensky said in a speech to Danish lawmakers.

“It’s terrible. They were waiting for people to go to work,” said regional governor Vitaly Kim. “I slept too much. I am lucky.”

In other developments:

— The head of the UN Office for Nuclear Supervision arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. Russian forces have taken control of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, and the operational Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, whose building was damaged in the fighting.

Russia destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kiev and in the east, the Ukrainian military said in a statement on Tuesday.

— Bloomberg News reported that it had suspended operations in Russia and Belarus. Clients in both countries will not be able to access any of Bloomberg’s financial products, and Russian securities trading features have been disabled in accordance with international sanctions, the company said.

Previous talks between Russia and Ukraine, either in person in Belarus or via video link, have failed to end a war that has killed thousands and forced more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including almost 4 million from their own country.

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine give up hope of joining NATO’s Western alliance, which Moscow sees as a threat. Over the weekend, Mr. Zelenskiy signaled he was open to that, saying Ukraine was ready to declare its neutrality, but added that the country needed its own security guarantees under any agreement. Zelensky’s adviser Mikhail Podolyak said that the end of the war depends on “international guarantees of Ukraine’s security.”

What is the role for Abramovich?

Roman Abramovich, a longtime Putin ally subject to UK and EU sanctions, also attended the meeting room in Istanbul. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the owner of the Chelsea football club acted as an unofficial middleman approved by the two countries, but the mystery of his role is compounded by reports that he may have been poisoned in a previous round of negotiations.

Investigation agency Bellingcat reported on Monday that after participating in the March 3 peace talks, Abramovich and two Ukrainian delegates suffered eye pain and skin irritation consistent with chemical weapons poisoning. The UK government said the allegations were “very troubling”, but Peskov countered that the information was “not true”.

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