Russian forces bombarded areas around Kyiv and another city, just hours after pledging to scale back military operations in those places to help negotiations along, Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday.
The shelling — and intensified Russian attacks on other parts of the country — tempered optimism about any progress in the talks aimed at ending the punishing war.
In announcing plans Tuesday to de-escalate near the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust,” Russia’s military did not spell out what it planned to do, and the move was met with deep suspicion from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the West.
Soon after, Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling hit homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites in Chernihiv and on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian troops also stepped up their attacks around the eastern city of Izyum and the eastern Donetsk region, after redeploying some units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.
Five weeks into the invasion, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering 4 million, according to the United Nations, while the economic repercussions from the war and the West’s sanctions against Moscow widened.
Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, issued a warning over its natural gas supplies amid concerns that Russia could cut off deliveries unless it is paid in rubles. Poland announced steps to end all Russian oil imports by the end of 2022.
At a round of talks held Tuesday in Istanbul, the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge when the Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which Ukraine would declare itself neutral — dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded — in return for security guarantees from a group of other countries.
Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, said Ukraine’s readiness to consider neutral status would meet a key Russian demand.
Medinsky said in televised comments that the proposals signaled Ukraine’s readiness to reach agreement “for the first time in years,” adding that if Ukraine makes good on its offer, “the threat of creating a NATO bridgehead on the Ukrainian territory will be removed.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sounded a positive note as well but added, “We can’t say there has been something promising or any breakthroughs.”
After the Kremlin’s announcement that it would scale back some of its military operations, Zelenskyy reacted by saying that when dealing with the Russians, “you can trust only concrete results.”
“We judge the Russian military machine by its actions, not just its words,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab likewise told Sky News. “There’s obviously some skepticism that it will regroup to attack again rather than seriously engaging in diplomacy.”
He added: “Of course, the door to diplomacy will always be left ajar, but I don’t think you can trust what is coming out of the mouth of Putin’s war machine.”
The skepticism appeared well-founded on Wednesday.
“The so-called reduction of activity in the Chernihiv region was demonstrated by the enemy strikes, including airstrikes on Nizhyn, and all night long they were shelling Chernihiv,” said the regional governor, Viacheslav Chaus. “Civilian infrastructure facilities, libraries, shopping centers, many houses were destroyed in Chernihiv.”
Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. Russian forces also hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the Donetsk region.
The barrages came as Britain’s Defense Ministry warned that while heavy losses have forced some Russian units to return to Belarus and Russia to regroup and resupply, Moscow will probably compensate for any reduction in ground maneuvers by using mass artillery and missile strikes.
Top Russian military officials have said in recent days that their main goal now is the “liberation” of Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Western officials said Moscow is reinforcing troops in the Donbas.
Some analysts have suggested that the apparent scaling back of the Kremlin’s war aims and pledge to de-escalate may merely be an effort to put a positive spin on reality: Moscow’s ground troops have been thwarted — and taken heavy losses — in their bid to seize the capital and other cities.
Meanwhile, a missile destroyed part of an apartment block in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk early Wednesday, and two people were reported killed. Separatists blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack.
“I was just sitting on the couch and — bang! — the window glass popped, the frames came off. I didn’t even understand what happened,” said resident Anna Gorda.
The U.N. food aid agency said it is providing emergency assistance to 1 million people in Ukraine. It said the food includes 330,000 freshly baked loaves of bread for families in the heavily bombarded eastern city of Kharkiv.
“Children are suffering, and our city, and everything,” Tetyana Parmynska, a 28-year-old from the Chernihiv region now at a refugee center in Poland, said as man played songs on a battered piano decorated with a peace emblem. “We have no strength anymore.”
By Nebi Qena and Yuras Karmanau (AP)