Russia has said that it will “radically” scale back its military activity around Kyiv and another battleground city in northern Ukraine, marking a concession in talks between the two sides.
Alexander Fomin, the deputy defence minister, signalled that attacks on the capital and Chernihiv would be reduced by “a large margin” to bolster mutual trust before further negotiations. Russia had already declared that it would focus its forces towards the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, after its attempt to storm the northern cities stalled.
However, Ben Wallace, the British defence secretary, cast doubt on Moscow’s apparent concessions and claimed President Putin’s ambition was still the “systematic occupation and control of Ukraine”.
In other developments:
• Russia is deploying battle-hardened mercenaries to reinforce its assault on eastern Ukraine and make up for its previous losses, according to British intelligence.
- Roman Abramovich is in Turkey attending potential peace talks between both sides, despite experiencing temporary loss of vision and peeling skin after an apparent chemical attack.
- A fresh attempt to move civilians from besieged cities, including Mariupol, is due to be made today.
- Russia would not use nuclear weapons unless its existence was threatened, Putin’s spokesman said.
The rouble, which fell sharply after Russia’s invasion, surged by more than 10 per cent against the dollar today after progress in the talks between Moscow and Kyiv.
Speaking as negotiators from both sides met in Istanbul, Fomin said: “In order to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieving the ultimate goal of agreeing and signing [an] agreement, a decision was made to radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions.”
He added that Russia’s military leaders would reveal in more detail the decisions that had been taken after the delegation had returned to Moscow.
Turkey’s foreign minister said Russian and Ukrainian negotiators had reached “a consensus and common understanding” on some issues. Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two sides had made “the most meaningful progress” since the start of the negotiations. He said it would be followed by talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers and that a meeting of the country’s leaders was also “on the agenda”.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey had encouraged the two sides to “secure a ceasefire” and an agreement on the opening of humanitarian corridors.
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator, said that he also wanted to set up a face-to-face meeting between Putin and President Zelensky.
“We are taking these two steps to de-escalate the conflict,” he said.
The Ukrainian delegation has offered Russia a pledge of neutrality and a 15-year consolation period over the sovereignty of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. It also said that it wanted several countries, including the UK, France, US and China, to act as guarantors of a peace deal.
“We want an international mechanism of security guarantees where guarantor countries will act in a similar way to Nato’s article number five — and even more firmly,” David Arakhamia, a Ukrainian negotiator, said.
Article five of the Nato treaty requires member states to come to the aid of other members in case of an attack.
“Ukraine would accept neutral status if the security guarantees work,” said Arakhamia, signalling that the country would not seek to join Nato.
Kyiv has requested that any deal should not prevent Ukraine’s possible future membership of the European Union, however. It also wants any security guarantors to support its attempt to join the bloc.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, appeared at a meeting with military officials today to repeat claims that the “liberation” of the Donbas was Russia’s primary objective. He claimed that the first phase of the invasion had been successful, without elaborating.
In its latest briefing the UK Ministry of Defence said that the Russian army had been forced to “reorganise and reset” after its initial advances were checked and countered by Ukrainian forces.
Russia is deploying battle-hardened mercenaries to reinforce its assault on eastern Ukraine and make up for its previous losses, according to British intelligence.
More than 1,000 mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group are to be flown in from central Africa and Syria to help turn the tide of the war in Moscow’s favour, the MoD said.
Russian shelling and cruise missile attacks continued overnight in Ukraine. In the southern port of Mykolaiv, a missile hit the regional government headquarters, killing at least seven people, injuring 22 and destroying much of the building.
Images posted to Telegram on the governor’s official channel showed a tall administrative building with a large section torn away and debris piled up at the base.
Many of the 22 people wounded had to be pulled from the rubble, the Ukrainian emergencies service said.
“We’re clearing the rubble. Half the building was destroyed. My office was hit,” the governor, Vitaly Kim, added in a video statement, before adding that he only escaped the blast because he overslept.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had destroyed a large fuel depot in the western region of Rivne with cruise missiles on Monday evening.
In an update on the state of the invasion the MoD said that Russian forces were facing significant losses, with the Ukrainians claiming to have killed 17,200 troops. It said that Russian troops were being rotated out from the front line to recuperate after a month of heavy conflict.
The ministry added: “Russian private military company the Wagner Group has deployed to eastern Ukraine. They are expected to deploy more than 1,000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the organisation, to undertake combat operations.
“Due to heavy losses and a largely stalled invasion, Russia has highly likely been forced to reprioritise Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria.”
The Ukrainian government said it was operating three humanitarian corridors to move civilians out of the besieged port of Mariupol and two Russian-occupied cities in the south.
Iryna Vereshchuk, one of Ukraine’s deputy prime ministers, said that evacuations would also be attempted from Enerhodar and Melitopol. Those cities have been under Russian control for weeks and have seen protests and alleged kidnappings of pro-Ukraine politicians.
The routes converge in the Ukraine-controlled southern city of Zaporizhzhia.
Last night the Kremlin warned Nato not to “push us into a corner” and said Russia felt it was “amongst war” with the West because of severe sanctions.
However, a spokesman for Putin said that Russia would not use nuclear weapons unless its existence is threatened, despite the Russian leader elevating the alert level some weeks ago.
“We have a security concept that very clearly states that only when there is a threat for existence of the state in our country, we can use and we will actually use nuclear weapons,” Dmitry Peskov told a US broadcaster. “No one is thinking about using, about — even about [the] idea of using a nuclear weapon.”
Peskov’s remarks, in an interview with PBS, appear to defuse the menacing hints that have emerged from the Russian leadership about its willingness to use nuclear weapons. Over the weekend Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and member of the country’s security council, said: “We are ready to give a worthy response to any infringement on our country, on its independence.”
Peskov tried to justify what Russia calls its “special military operation” by saying that its security concerns about Nato’s eastward expansion had been ignored by the West, and insisted that it was confident of victory using conventional weapons.
“We have no doubt that all the objectives of our special military operation in Ukraine will be completed,” he said. “But any outcome of the operation, of course, is not a reason for usage of a nuclear weapon.”
The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, has announced an initiative to negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine to allow aid to get through to cities such as Mariupol. However, Ukrainian officials have played down expectations of a breakthrough in the talks with Russia in Istanbul.
“The minimum programme will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum programme is reaching an agreement on a ceasefire,” the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said. “We are not trading people, land or sovereignty.”
Despite claiming to have recaptured Irpin, Zelensky was careful in his video address last night not to encourage hopes of a swift end to the war.
“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” he said. “We can’t raise expectations, simply so that we don’t burn out.”
He became visibly frustrated when speaking of the majority of countries that have not imposed sanctions on Russia. “Doesn’t everything the Russia military has done to date warrant an oil embargo?” he asked. “Don’t phosphorous bombs warrant it? A shelled chemical production facility or a shelled nuclear power plant doesn’t warrant it?”