Ukraine and Russia were preparing on Monday for the first face-to-face peace talks in more than two weeks, but a senior US official said Russian president Vladimir Putin did not appear ready to make compromises to end the war.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said a ceasefire was the most his country could hope for from the talks, due to be held in Istanbul on Tuesday after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Mr Putin on Sunday.
“We are not trading people, land or sovereignty,” said Dmytro Kuleba.
A report that Russian billionaire and mediator Roman Abramovich and Ukrainian peace negotiators had suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv this month underlined the tension over the talks.
The Wall Street Journal and the investigative outlet Bellingcat cited people familiar with the matter for their reports but Ukraine downplayed them and a US official said the cause of the symptoms was environmental, not poison.
US president Joe Biden has said his comments at the weekend that Russian leader Vladimir Putin should be removed from power reflected his own "moral outrage" at his behaviour in Ukraine and not did not represent a major policy change by the White House.
Speaking at a press conference in Washington on Monday he said: “No one believes we’re going to take down Putin down.”
The president said he was “not walking anything back” by clarifying the ad lib remarks he made regarding Mr Putin at the end of a speech in Poland on Saturday.
“I wasn’t then nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing moral outrage that I felt and I make no apologies,” he said.
He said he had made the speech shortly after he had visited families who had been displaced from their homes displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Asked whether the remark would spur a negative response from Mr Putin, president Biden replied: “I don’t care what he thinks . . . He’s going to do what he’s going to do.”
In besieged Ukrainian cities where conditions are desperate, the threat of Russian attacks blocked exit routes for civilians, two Ukrainian officials said, including the devastated port of Mariupol whose mayor said 160,000 people were still trapped.
But the United Nations said it had been able to bring food and medical supplies into Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city and one of its hardest hit.
A predawn missile blew out the wall of a Kharkiv school.
“They’ve not been able to take the city, so they’ve decided to destroy it,” said one source, sweeping rubble out of a third-storey classroom after spending the night with his mother on a lower floor because their own neighbourhood had been hit.
The mayor of Irpin, near Kyiv, said Ukrainian forces were back in full control and a US defence official said the Ukrainians had recaptured the eastern town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy and were continuing to counterattack.
Russia’s defence ministry said its troops had destroyed ammunition depots in the Zhytomyr region west of Kyiv and had hit 41 Ukrainian military sites in the past 24 hours. Reuters could not immediately verify any of the reports.
Tuesday’s talks will be the first in person since an acrimonious meeting between foreign ministers on March 10th, a sign of shifts behind the scenes as Russia’s invasion has stalled and sanctions have hit home.
“We have destroyed the myth of the invincible Russian army . . . and have succeeded in making them change their goals,” said Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko.
He said 100 people had been killed in the capital, including four children, and 82 multistorey buildings had been destroyed.
It was not possible to verify the figures.
Russia’s military signalled last week it would concentrate on expanding territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, but Ukraine said it saw no sign Russia had given up a plan to surround the capital, which it targeted in its invasion.
Ukrainian officials had suggested Russia could be more willing to compromise having seen stiff Ukrainian resistance and heavy Russian losses. But a senior US state department official said Mr Putin did not give that impression.
"Everything I have seen is he is not willing to compromise at this point," said the official. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy outlined a potential way to end the crisis over the weekend.
When the sides last met in person, Ukraine accused Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov of ignoring pleas to discuss a ceasefire, while Mr Lavrov said a halt to fighting was not even on the agenda.
Since then, they have held talks via video link and publicly discussed a formula under which Ukraine might accept some kind of formal neutral status. But neither side has budged over Russia’s territorial demands, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and eastern territories known as the Donbas, which Moscow demands Kyiv cede to separatists.
“I don’t think there will be any breakthrough on the main issues,” said Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko.
‘Special military operation’
Mr Erdogan, however, was more upbeat, reporting progress in telephone calls with Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour. Kyiv and the West consider this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion to try to topple the elected Ukrainian government.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said talks should not end up “selling Ukraine out”, noting the “uneasy settlement” which left it vulnerable after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“We need to ensure that Putin can never act in this aggressive way again. Any long-term settlement needs to include a clear sanctions snapback, which would be triggered automatically by any Russian aggression,” she told parliament.
Last week, Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back in areas around Kyiv, the northeast and the southwest, while Russia kept up pressure in the southeast near separatist areas, including its devastating siege of Mariupol.
That city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, speaking from an undisclosed location outside Mariupol, said 26 buses were waiting to evacuate some of 160,000 trapped civilians but Russia was denying safe passage.
“People are beyond the line of humanitarian catastrophe,” said Mr Boichenko on national television.
Deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said intelligence reports of possible Russian “provocations” along evacuation routes out of besieged cities meant there were no plans for such evacuations on Monday.
Elsewhere, Russia’s armoured columns are bogged down, with trouble resupplying and making little or no progress.
Britain’s defence ministry said there had been no major change in Russia’s positions in the past 24 hours, with most Russian gains near Mariupol and heavy fighting underway there. – Reuters