Russia plays down peace-talks progress, intensifies attacks in eastern Ukraine

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Moscow dampened hope that a breakthrough in the latest peace talks had been achieved and followed through on its advertised shift in war plans in Ukraine by redoubling its ground and air assaults in eastern portions of the country.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday dispelled the idea that Tuesday’s talks in Turkey between Ukrainian and Russian delegates had represented a turning point. “No one said that the sides have made headway,” he said. “We can’t point to anything particularly promising.”

The statement came less than 24 hours after Moscow’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, for the initialing of a peace treaty once the negotiations are completed. He also said that, in a show of good will, Russia would limit its operations near Kyiv.

The fighting that began Feb. 24 has now caused more than four million people to flee Ukraine, the United Nations said Wednesday, effectively reaching a level the organization once thought might be the upper limit for refugee totals. The U.N. has previously said many millions have also been displaced within the country, with more than 10 million people uprooted either within Ukraine or driven abroad.

With little indication the conflict is nearing an end, Germany, which relies heavily on energy imports from Russia, triggered an early-warning stage of a contingency plan that aims to insulate the country against any possible reduction in gas deliveries.

The Ukrainian military early Wednesday said it had fought off four Russian advances in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which Moscow over the past few days has said it would prioritize in the fighting. It later added that Russia had intensified its assault in the direction of Donetsk, focused principally on winning control of the cities of Popasna, Rubizhne and Mariupol.

Russia continued its long-range strikes throughout the country, attacking what it characterized as military targets. Russia’s Defense Ministry said it destroyed Ukrainian military equipment and struck two large warehouses in the Donbas area with short-range ballistic missiles.

Mr. Zelensky celebrated the apparent Russian withdrawal from areas around Kyiv, as well as the area around a hotly contested village in the southern province of Kherson. “The Russian military allegedly decided to reduce military activities,” he said in a daily video address. “Russian planes started to fly less, and Russian equipment started to drive less.”

But Mr. Zelensky warned that the armed forces would remain on alert throughout the country despite the apparent retreat around Kyiv. “The situation has not become easier. The scale of the challenges has not diminished. The Russian army still has significant potential to continue attacks against our state,” he said.

The Kremlin’s strategy shift, Western officials have said, suggests a greater focus on securing and expanding one of its strongholds inside Ukraine, potentially as a bargaining chip in peace talks.

Ukraine’s military, while saying it saw signs Russian forces were regrouping to focus on the east, expressed doubt that Moscow had given up its efforts to take Kyiv. The troop movements around the capital, the Ukrainian military said, may be little more than a rotation of units.

Meanwhile, Russia appeared to be redoubling efforts to take cities further from Kyiv.

Russian rounds continued to pummel the southern front-line city of Mykolayiv at night, vibrating walls and windows even miles away on the right bank of the Southern Bug River. By morning, dump trucks passed through a fortified checkpoint near the regional administrative headquarters in the center of town, hauling away wreckage from Tuesday’s Russian missile strike that destroyed most of the building. Four women in tears joined in a hug, expressing lost hope for colleagues of theirs buried in the rubble. Workers pulled bodies from the pile.

In the northern province of Chernihiv, Russia continued to bomb throughout the night, hitting an administrative center, according to the regional governor. Russian troops “spent the whole night hitting Chernihiv,” wrote the governor, Vyacheslav Chaus. “In fact the enemy roamed Chernihiv all night.”

Western experts suggest that Russia’s withdrawal of some forces around Kyiv may be nothing more than a tactical pause, after a month of fighting in which Moscow has failed to take a major city and called for reinforcements from deep inside Russia. The British Defense Ministry on Wednesday said Russian forces, after suffering heavy losses, might be returning to Belarus and Russia to regroup.

Some of the most intensive fighting in Ukraine is taking place in Donbas, where Russian troops have entered the port city of Mariupol. The city has been besieged for about a month, but fierce battles with Ukrainian forces continue. Local officials have put the civilian death toll in the city, where many neighborhoods have been leveled, at more than 5,000.

Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that an hour-long phone call between Mr. Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday night bore no progress in alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Mariupol. Mr. Putin told Mr. Macron that conditions would improve when Ukrainian forces surrendered, according to Russia’s state news agency TASS, citing the Kremlin.

Still, Mr. Peskov said Russia had no plans to level cities. “We have no Stalingrads on our calendar,” Mr. Peskov told reporters, in reference to the Russian city destroyed by Germany in World War II.

In the rest of Donbas, Russia so far has failed to seize the principal cities of Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Severodonetsk.

Ukrainian troops have launched counteroffensives in several areas in recent weeks, including near Kyiv and Chernihiv, and in the regions of Mykolayiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.

—Brett Forrest contributed to this article.

 

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