Russia and Ukraine “have almost reached agreement” on four critical points of a potential peace agreement, Turkey’s foreign minister said, as fierce fighting continued to devastate the key port city of Mariupol.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkey’s pro-government Hurriyet newspaper that there was a growing “convergence” between Moscow and Kyiv after intense diplomacy over the past week.
Turkey, which is mediating in the talks alongside Israel, said Ukraine and Russia had made significant progress on Kyiv declaring neutrality and abandoning its drive for Nato membership, "demilitarising" Ukraine in exchange for collective security guarantees, what Russia calls "denazification", and lifting restrictions on the use of Russian in Ukraine.
A possible agreement would require Russia to announce a ceasefire and withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory to the positions they had been in when Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24th.
It is likely that a compromise would involve Kyiv making token concessions by banning certain groups or changing the names of streets named after Ukrainian partisans who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the USSR in the second world war, said two people briefed on the talks.
Russia is also likely to soften a demand for Ukraine to make Russian the second official language in the country if Kyiv rolls back laws limiting its use, one of the people added.
Ukraine and its western allies are sceptical of Russia’s motives in negotiating and fear Putin could be buying time to replenish Moscow’s forces and launch a new offensive.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said talks were worth pursuing even if they had a “1 per cent chance of success” and warned that a failure of negotiations would risk “a third world war”.
Moscow claims it used the Kinzhal, which Russia says can travel at 10 times the speed of sound, twice in the past three days: to destroy a fuel depot near Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine and to target a munitions storage facility in the country’s west.
Russian forces continued their intense assault of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, whose status is a key sticking point in the talks, according to two people briefed on them.
Ukraine’s armed forces said the situation was “difficult: there is famine in the city, street fights, people are trying to leave the city on their own”. Russian forces have cut off electricity, heat and food supplies.
Authorities in Mariupol said Russian forces bombed a school where about 400 residents were sheltering. A statement on the city council’s Telegram channel said the building was destroyed and “civilians are still under the rubble”.
“Information on the number of casualties is still being clarified,” it said.
Russia is publicly sticking to the demands Putin made in the first days of the invasion, including vaguely defined calls to “demilitarise” and “denazify” Ukraine. Moscow also wants Kyiv to recognise its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the independence of two Russia-backed separatist territories in the eastern Donbas region.
As its invasion has stalled, however, Russia has quietly dropped its vow to remove Zelensky and dialled down suggestions of carving up the country into Moscow-backed fiefdoms and a rump state.
Ukraine has ruled out making territorial concessions to Russia under any circumstances and has said negotiations on the areas seized by Moscow before this year would require separate talks between Zelensky and Putin.
Mariupol is a particularly difficult issue because it is part of the Ukrainian-held territory claimed by the separatists.
Putin has justified the invasion by claiming Russia is liberating Ukraine from Nazis, even though Zelensky is Jewish and far-right nationalist groups have little influence in the country.
Days after Russian shells struck a theatre in the city also being used as a shelter, local authorities said Mariupol’s G12 art school had been destroyed while women, children and elderly people were inside. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Russian news agencies have said hundreds of people Moscow calls refugees have been bussed from Mariupol to Russia.
A total of 6,623 civilians were evacuated on Saturday along humanitarian corridors, including 4,000 from Mariupol, authorities said on Sunday, with Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, adding that seven safe routes would again be open on Sunday to enable civilians to leave frontline areas.
The mayor of the encircled northern city of Chernihiv said on Sunday a hospital had been hit in the latest shelling, killing dozens of civilians. “The city is suffering from an absolute humanitarian catastrophe,” Vladislav Atroshenko said.
Details are also emerging of a rocket attack that killed as many as 40 marines in the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv on Friday, according to the New York Times, which cited an unnamed Ukrainian military official.
Russian forces fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region between Friday and Saturday, Ukraine’s national police said, killing or wounding dozens of civilians. At least 37 residential buildings and facilities were damaged including a school, a museum and a shopping centre.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Sunday that the frontlines between Ukrainian and Russian forces were “practically frozen” as Russia did not have enough combat strength to advance further. “[Over the past day] there were practically no rocket strikes on [UKRAINIAN]cities,” Arestovych added.
Humanitarian conditions in Ukraine, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. Aid agencies have warned they are struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of people trapped by Russian forces, whose advance has been slowed by logistics problems and fierce Ukrainian resistance around several key cities.
In the capital, Kyiv, authorities said at least 20 babies carried by Ukrainian surrogate mothers are being cared for by nurses in a bomb shelter because of constant shelling, with parents unable to travel into the war zone to pick them up.
Britain’s defence ministry said Ukrainain resistance had forced Russia to “change its operational approach”, but warned that Moscow’s strategy of attrition was “likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis”.
– Reuters with additional reporting by the Guardian and The Financial Times