Ukraine and Russia have said a compromise might be found to end a war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions, even as the Kremlin insisted that its invasion was on track and its forces continued their deadly bombardment of Ukrainian towns and cities.
Officials in Ukraine's besieged southeastern port of Mariupol accused Russia on Wednesday of bombing a drama theatre where they said hundreds of people had been sheltering. Hours earlier, Russian forces allegedly killed 10 civilians queuing for bread in the city of Chernihiv and continued to shell residential districts of the country's two main cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv.
US president Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a war criminal in comments the Kremlin said were "unforgivable", as it insisted the war in Ukraine was "going to plan" amid talk of compromise at peace talks.
Kremlin forces kept up their bombardments of besieged cities, including intensified shelling of the capital Kyiv, while civilians waiting in line for bread and sheltering in a theatre were killed, according to US and Ukrainian officials
Moscow has yet to capture any of Ukraine’s biggest cities following its invasion that began on February 24th, the largest assault on a European state since the second World War, raising fears of wider conflict in the West.
‘Going to plan’
Putin on Wednesday said he would discuss neutral status for Ukraine and that what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise the country was “going to plan”. Kyiv and allies say his actions are an unprovoked incursion.
The US announced an additional $800 million (€725 million) in security assistance to Ukraine to fight Russia, with the new package including drones, anti-armour and anti-aircraft systems.
“More will be coming as we source additional stocks of equipment that ... we are ready to transfer,” Biden said, later condemning Putin. “He is a war criminal,” he told reporters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the comment was "unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric", according to Tass news agency.
Ukraine still hopes for a diplomatic solution. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said negotiations were becoming "more realistic" and Russia said proposals under discussion were "close to an agreement".
The US embassy in Kyiv said Russian forces had shot dead 10 people waiting in line for bread in Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv. Russia denied the attack and said the incident was a hoax.
Emergency services said rescue workers had found the bodies of five people during searches of shell-hit buildings.
In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, the city council said Russian forces bombed a theatre where civilians were sheltering. The number of casualties was not known. Russia denied it had carried out an air strike against the theatre.
Ukraine handed over nine captured soldiers to secure the freedom of the mayor of the city of Melitopol, who was detained last week, the Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted a senior official as saying on Wednesday.
Russian officials who demand that Ukraine abandon its hopes of joining Nato said that neutral status for the country and limits on its armed forces were under discussion, but Kyiv insisted it would not give up its own key demands.
"Our position at the negotiations is quite specific – legally verified security guarantees; ceasefire; withdrawal of Russian troops. This is possible only with direct dialogue between the heads of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, " said Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine's chief negotiator in the talks with Moscow.
Ukraine wants “absolute security guarantees . . . which means the signatories of the guarantees do not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as they do now. But instead, they play an active part in the conflict on the side of Ukraine and officially provide an immediate supply of the requisite amount of weaponry,” he explained.
As Nato again rejected Ukraine's request for a no-fly zone in its airspace, Mr Podolyak said any deal must include "direct and firm guarantees that the sky will be 'closed'" by its security partners in the event of attack.
Even as Russia’s losses mounted in Ukraine and its forces continued to be bogged down outside major cities, Putin insisted that his invasion was “going to plan”, three weeks after he sent tens of thousands of troops across the border.
“The question of principle for our country and its future – the neutral status of Ukraine, its demilitarisation and its denazification – we were ready and we are ready to discuss as part of negotiations,” he said in an address from the Kremlin.
‘Scum and traitors’
He depicted his war against Ukraine – a democracy of 41 million people – as an operation to prevent it being used by a hostile West to attack Russia and “to turn us into a weak, dependent country”.
Mr Putin described domestic pro-western opponents of his regime as “scum and traitors” and said they would never be accepted by most Russians: “I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country.”
In an address to the US Congress, Mr Zelenskiy compared Russia's invasion to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour and the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, and he evoked Martin Luther King jnr's 1963 "I have a dream" speech.
“I have a need . . . I need to protect our sky,” he said.
Nato again rejected his call to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine – which it says could spark a war between the West and Russia – but US president Joe Biden unveiled an $800 million (€725 million) arms package for Kyiv that includes anti-tank and light anti-aircraft missiles. – Additional reporting Reuters