Moscow dismissed a diplomatic overture by Ukraine in peace talks, while Russian forces hit targets around Kyiv on Wednesday despite saying they would limit attacks there as they stepped up ground and air assaults in eastern portions of the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said talks Tuesday in Turkey between Ukrainian and Russian delegates didn’t represent a turning point in the conflict. “No one said that the sides have made headway,” he said. “We can’t point to anything particularly promising.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, Moscow’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, had described proposals from Kyiv in the negotiations as a constructive step and held out the prospect of a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to seal any deal.
Mr. Medinsky said Tuesday that as a gesture of goodwill, Russia would limit military operations near Kyiv and other cities in the north of the country—where Russian offensive operations had stalled in the face of fierce resistance. On Wednesday, Russia characterized troop movements there as regrouping to prepare for operations in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in China on Wednesday, said Moscow remained committed to peace talks and de-escalation. And Mr. Medinsky said Ukraine had shown a willingness to address many of Russia’s concerns.
But Moscow rolled back Mr. Medinsky’s comments soon after his return from talks in Istanbul. On Wednesday evening, a close ally of Mr. Putin, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, released a video addressed to Moscow-backed fighters in Ukraine, assuring them that “we are not making any kind of retreat, Mr. Medinsky is somehow mistaken.”
“There’s no reason to worry, we have our commander, the president, the leader who sees 100 years ahead,” Mr. Kadyrov said. He said Chechen volunteers were seizing villages and territory in Ukraine and would soon come to Kyiv itself. “As they say, if the mountain does not come to Muhammad, Muhammad will come to the mountain,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said it fought off Russian advances in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of the Donbas region, which Moscow over the past few days has said would be the new focus of its offensive. Fighting remained fierce around the strategically important city of Mariupol.
Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than four million people have fled the fighting, the United Nations said Wednesday, in what is the largest and most rapid international movement of people in Europe since World War II.
President Biden told Mr. Zelensky during a call on Wednesday that the U.S. would provide $500 million in budgetary aid to Ukraine to help the country maintain government services. The two leaders also discussed efforts by the U.S. and its allies to provide military, economic and humanitarian assistance to the country, the White House said.
“I stressed that right now is a turning point,’’ Mr. Zelensky later said in his nightly video address to his nation, which he delivered standing in the dark outside in Kyiv.
“If we really are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together, then we have a right to demand help in this difficult turning point. Tanks, aircraft, artillery systems. Freedom should be armed no worse than tyranny,” Mr. Zelensky added.
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.
Russia continued its long-range strikes throughout Ukraine, 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 warned that armed forces would remain on alert throughout the country. “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.
Mr. Zelensky has pushed for countries such as the U.S., U.K., Israel and others to guarantee his country’s security as part of any peace deal. Kyiv presented a proposal for a neutral status and international security guarantees during talks in Turkey on Tuesday.
“This is the system we would like to build the future of Ukraine on,” said Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia, the majority leader in the country’s parliament.
“We want an international mechanism of security guarantees where guarantor countries will act in a similar way to NATO’s article number five,” Mr. Arakhamia said, referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual-defense promise.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield declined to say Wednesday whether the U.S. would be willing to serve as a security guarantor for Ukraine. Officials from the U.K., Germany and France said they were opposed to a NATO-style defense pact with Kyiv as part of any such deal.
The Kremlin’s previously announced military 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.
While Russian attacks appeared focused on areas away from the capital on Wednesday, most Russian forces around Kyiv haven’t been redeployed elsewhere, according to a Pentagon assessment.
“The airstrikes have not stopped. Not at all. So Kyiv is very much under threat,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
Ukraine’s military, while saying it saw signs that Russian forces were regrouping to focus on the east, also 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 Mykolaiv at night, shaking walls and windows 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 buried in the rubble. Workers pulled bodies from the pile.
In the northern province of Chernihiv, Russia bombardments hit 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 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.
“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing,” said Ms. Bedingfield, the White House communications director, adding that the Biden administration was declassifying information related to the matter.
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 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, referring 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 Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.