The first face-to-face talks in two weeks between Russia and Ukraine began Tuesday in Turkey, raising flickering hopes of progress to end to a war that has ground into a bloody campaign of attrition.
Ahead of the talks in Istanbul, the Ukrainian president said his country is prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and is open to compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas — comments that might lend momentum to negotiations. But he warned the “ruthless war” continued and that Ukrainians were paying with their lives for the West's hesitancy on imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the two sides gathered for talks that they had a “historic responsibility” to stop the fighting.
“We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace. Prolonging the conflict is not in anyone’s interest,” Erdogan said, as he greeted the two delegations seated on opposite sides of a long table. Also in the room was Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club and a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been playing an unspecified mediating role.
Putin’s aim of a quick military victory has been thwarted by stiff Ukrainian resistance — but still hopes were not high for a breakthrough. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, reflecting skepticism among Ukraine's Western allies, said she thought the Russian president was “not serious about talks.”
In fighting that has devolved into a back-and-forth stalemate, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital, Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday. But he warned that Russian troops were regrouping to take the area back.
“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “This is a ruthless war against our nation, against our people, against our children.”
Earlier talks between the sides, held in person in Belarus or by video, failed to make progress on ending the more than month-long war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.
Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelenskyy indicated over the weekend he was open to that, saying Ukraine was ready to declare its neutrality, but he has stressed that the country needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.
As well as Irpin, Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation that has left a landscape devastated by war.
Arriving in the town Monday shortly afterward, The Associated Press saw the bodies of two Russian soldiers lay abandoned in the woods and Russian tanks lay burned and twisted. A red “Z” marked a Russian truck, its windshield fractured, near stacked boxes of ammunition. Ukrainian forces piled atop a tank flashed victory signs. Dazed residents lined up amid charred buildings seeking aid.
It was unclear where the Russian troops went, under what circumstances they fled and whether the town will remain free of them. In his overnight address, Zelenskyy emphasized the situation remains tense in Ukraine’s northeast around Kharkiv, the nearest large city, and other areas, as he pressed Western countries to do more to support Ukraine, including levying harsher sanctions on Russia and providing more weapons.
“If someone is afraid of Russia, if he or she is afraid to make the necessary decisions that are important to us, in particular for us to get planes, tanks, necessary artillery, shells, it makes these people responsible for the catastrophe created by Russian troops in our cities, too,” he said. “Fear always makes you an accomplice.”
But the returned presence of Ukrainian forces in Trostyanets was a relief for a country hoping that Russian forces are pulling back as they encounter fierce resistance.
Putin’s ground forces have become bogged down because of the stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, combined with what Western officials say are Russian tactical missteps, poor morale, shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, and other problems.
In response, Russia appeared to be concentrating more on the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years, the official said.
While that raised a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it has also raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country, forcing it to surrender a swath of its territory. Still, Zelenskyy's comments that he was open to compromise on the region indicated a possible path for negotiations.
In other developments:
— Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kyiv and in the east, Ukraine’s military said in a post Tuesday. It said the Orthodox church – the country’s majority religion – was the most affected but that mosques, synagogues, Protestant churches and religious schools were also destroyed.
— Bloomberg News said it has suspended its operations in Russia and Belarus. Customers in both countries won't be able to access any Bloomberg financial products and trading functions for Russian securities were disabled in line with international sanctions, it said. Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $40 million, meanwhile, in support for Ukrainians and refugees.
— U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched an effort to achieve a humanitarian cease-fire that would allow aid to be brought in and people to move around safely.
In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, the mayor said half the pre-war population of more than 400,000 has fled, often under fire, during weeks of shooting and shelling.
Alina Beskrovna, who escaped the city in a convoy of cars and made it to Poland, said desperate people are melting snow for water and cooking on open fires despite the risk of bombardment, "because if you don’t, you will have nothing to eat.”
“A lot of people are just, I think, starving to death in their apartments right now with no help," she said. "It’s a mass murder that’s happening at the hands of the Russians.”