Ukraine’s leader expressed tentative hope for ceasefire talks on Monday even as Russian forces continued to shell his country’s cities, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in siege conditions.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said his representatives were discussing a possible meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, as negotiators noted some positive movement on issues of substance in recent days.
A fourth round of talks began on Monday morning, covering “peace, ceasefire, immediate withdrawal of troops [and] security guarantees”, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky.
“Hard discussion,” he added in a tweet before the meeting via video link, warning that Russia still appeared to be under the “delusion that 19 days of violence against peaceful cities is the right strategy”.
Diplomats remain sceptical about a breakthrough to end a war that has laid waste to Ukrainian cities, brought down devastating sanctions on Russia, and shaken world markets. But officials close to the talks reported tentative progress over the weekend, including on limited political issues relating to a potential settlement.
“Our mission is clear: to do everything we can to ensure a meeting of the two presidents,” said Zelensky in a video message overnight. “The meeting that I am sure people are waiting for.”
But he added Ukraine would need “guarantees” on issues including humanitarian corridors for besieged cities. Zelensky said more than 130,000 people had been “saved” via evacuations over six days, but many more remain trapped in embattled cities such as Mariupol.
Since Putin launched his invasion on February 24, Russia’s forces have failed to assert control of Ukraine’s skies, and are struggling to marshall offensives to envelop the country’s biggest cities.
But relentless artillery and missile assaults have turned some of Ukraine’s frontline towns and cities into rubble, while hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in siege conditions, without access to food, water or electricity.
With the war in its third week, there were signs of movement on Sunday in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides.
Podolyak said at the weekend that Russian negotiators were “no longer making ultimatums, but are listening carefully to our proposals”. Meanwhile one of the Russian negotiators, Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s committee on international affairs, noted the “substantial progress” made could be consolidated into documents soon.
A person close to the talks told the Financial Times there had been “movement” over the weekend that could allow Russia and Ukraine to reach agreement on Kyiv’s “demilitarisation” and future neutrality.
Moscow’s other demands — particularly that Ukraine recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist-held territories in the eastern Donbas region — looked “unreal”, the person said, but added that “the situation changes every day”.
Separately, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, will travel to Rome on Monday to meet Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, in talks that are expected to focus on the war in Ukraine.
The diplomatic efforts continued against the backdrop of a raging war, with Russia continuing its aerial assault on urban areas, including an early morning missile strike in Kyiv’s Obolon district. Several buildings in Stavische in the central Zhytomyr region were also attacked overnight, while an air strike on residential buildings in Okhtyrka near Sumy killed three people, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine’s military said on Monday that it had executed “crushing strikes” on Russian military infrastructure, including field bases and warehouses in order to disrupt its logistics.
After making little territorial progress for days, Kyiv said that the Russian troops appeared to be concentrating on regrouping, consolidating and resupplying frontline positions.
Ukrainian military claims cannot be independently verified. According to US officials, Russia has asked China for military equipment to support its invasion of Ukraine, where its troops’ advance has been repelled by Ukrainian defences around the capital Kyiv, and along the southern coast on the approach toward Odesa.
Despite ongoing talks and repeated pleas from western leaders, there were few signs of progress in reaching agreement on humanitarian corridors to take residents out of areas surrounded by Russian troops.
On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that a “worst-case scenario” awaited hundreds of thousands of residents of Mariupol, the besieged port city that has been without power, water or other basic services for nearly two weeks, unless the warring parties could “reach a concrete humanitarian agreement urgently”.
In a move with repercussions for Ukraine’s economy, British defence officials on Sunday said Russian naval forces had established a “distant blockade’” of the country’s Black Sea coast, “effectively isolating Ukraine from international maritime trade”.
A UN official co-ordinating the organisation’s emergency response to the war said that the disruptions to transport, shipping, farming, logistics, and other sectors by the war had hit more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
“We assess there are about 12mn people affected by the economic standstill, due to the war,” Amin Awad, assistant secretary-general serving as crisis co-ordinator for Ukraine, told the FT.