Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze at a warehouse in Kharkiv after it was hit by Russian shelling on Monday © Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Following weeks of offensive against Ukraine, Russia has decided to “dramatically” scale back its military activities in the Kyiv area. This was made known by a top defence ministry official after a fresh round of peace talks with Ukrainian counterparts in Istanbul.
According to Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, the move was intended to “increase mutual trust” as he made the announcement in Turkey after face-to-face talks concluded on Tuesday.
Fomin in a video shared by Russian state media stated that in order to “create the necessary conditions for future negotiations” Russia’s defence ministry had decided to “dramatically reduce military activities in the directions of Kyiv and Chernihiv”.
Both sides indicated that they had made progress at the Istanbul talks. The in-person talks would not go into a second day as planned but would instead continue online, a Ukrainian official said.
Fomin said the discussions were “entering a practical stage” on the issues of Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status - two key Russian demands - and on the provision of security guarantees for Ukraine, one of Kyiv’s priorities.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and a member of the country’s delegation, said “today, we have positions that can be almost supported by both the Russian Federation and the guarantor countries”, referring to the states that would be expected to underwrite Ukraine’s security as part of a settlement.
He said the documents the two sides had worked on at the talks “are sufficient for the meeting of the presidents to be announced and held”.
Western officials, however, cautioned against taking Moscow’s latest military pledge at face value:
“We have seen the Russians begin to draw away from Kyiv. But we have little confidence at this stage that it marks some significant shift or a meaningful retreat,” one US official said, adding: “The Russians are still pounding Kyiv with airstrikes. Time will tell”.
“If you allow us to take a pinch of salt with anything related to these talks, that would be helpful,” said a senior EU official. “At this moment we can’t pronounce whether this will be useful in stopping the war.”
Last week Russia’s military said it was entering a “new phase” in the war, focusing on battles in the east of Ukraine where it has been expanding its control in the Donbas region and fighting for dominance in the port city of Mariupol.
While negotiators had sketched the outlines of a potential ceasefire and moves towards a political settlement, diplomats in Kyiv, Moscow and the west said they remained skeptical about any imminent breakthrough.
Before the talks began on Tuesday, Zelensky used a late-night address to praise his forces for retaking Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv and an important gateway to the capital, the latest in a series of counter-attacks that pushed back Russian forces.
“The occupiers are pushed away from Irpin. Pushed away from Kyiv,” said Zelensky. “However, it is too early to talk about security in this part of our region. The fighting continues. Russian troops control the north of Kyiv, have the resources and manpower.”
Ukraine’s precise gains have not been independently verified but the UK said Zelensky’s forces had made progress in “localised counter-attacks” to the north-west of Kyiv, including at Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel. “These attacks have had some success and the Russians have been pushed back from a number of positions,” said the Ministry of Defence in an intelligence update on Tuesday.
If confirmed, the recapture of Irpin would mark a significant moment for Ukraine’s forces. The suburb of Kyiv has been the scene of heavy fighting since the war began.
Moscow and Kyiv are discussing a pause in hostilities and humanitarian corridors as part of a possible deal that would involve Ukraine abandoning its drive for Nato membership in exchange for security guarantees and the prospect of joining the EU, according to people familiar with the talks.
With Russia’s month-long ground offensive largely stalled, Moscow has signalled its willingness to pull back from some of its most difficult initial demands. But Ukraine and its western backers fear Russian President Vladimir Putin may be using the talks as a ruse to resupply his forces in preparation for a fresh offensive.
Draft ceasefire documents do not include reference to “denazification”, “demilitarisation” and legal protection for the Russian language in Ukraine, according to four people briefed on the discussions. Moscow is also prepared to let Kyiv join the EU if it remains militarily non-aligned, the people said.
David Arakhamia, head of Zelensky’s party in parliament and a member of Kyiv’s negotiating team, told the Financial Times before the talks that the parties were close to agreement on the security guarantees and Ukraine’s EU bid but urged caution about prospects for a breakthrough, saying that many points were “unresolved”.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said the country’s negotiators would “not trade people, land and sovereignty” during talks.
With the war in its second month, Russia has increasingly concentrated on making advances in the east, aiming to envelop Ukrainian forces there while throwing troops into the grinding battle for the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
In addition to the counter-attacks around Kyiv, Ukraine claimed battlefield momentum in the Sumy region north-west of its second city Kharkiv, and near the city of Izyum in the east, saying it had retaken the settlements of Kamyanka and Topolske. Ukrainian forces are also making advances in the southern Kherson region.
Most of the territorial gains are limited in scale and cannot be independently verified. But the Pentagon on Monday confirmed that Ukrainian forces had recaptured the town of Trostyanets, northwest of Kharkiv.
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Tuesday that Kyiv “still remains one of the main goals of this war for Putin”.
In an update on operations on Tuesday, Ukraine’s military claimed Russia’s troops were “weakened” and “disoriented”, with some units cut off from supply lines and the main forces. It said Russia was resorting to “indiscriminate artillery fire and rocket-bomb attacks” to offset the “decline in the combat potential of enemy units”.
On Tuesday morning, a Russian rocket wrecked the building of the Mykolayiv regional administration, said governor Vitaliy Kim.