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Ukraine ceasefire hopes dashed, fighting remains intense

Fighting and shelling in Ukraine continued without pause as both sides scuttled hopes for a ceasefire. The Kremlin threw cold water on peace talks in Istanbul and Ukraine called for more Western military aid.

(CN) — Hopes for a ceasefire any time soon in Ukraine were dashed on Wednesday as bloody fighting and the shelling of civilians continued and Moscow and Kyiv backed away from a tentative ceasefire deal that emerged the day before in Istanbul.

Reports from the battlefields saw both sides claiming they were inflicting heavy losses on their enemy in a fratricidal war that has been raging for 35 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the world with an invasion on a scale and ferocity not seen in Europe since World War II.

Gruesome and largely unverifiable accusations by both sides of torture, rape, kidnappings, deliberate civilian killings, the shooting of prisoners and other atrocities have become a daily feature of a war that is escalating and risks turning into a larger conflict.

Ukraine continues to ask the West to intervene militarily on its behalf, but so far NATO has resisted direct involvement though it continues to supply Kyiv with weapons, funds, encouragement and promises to rebuild the devastated country and bring it under Western protection.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden called the Ukraine war a fight between democracy and autocracy and escalated tensions by suggesting he wants to see regime change in Moscow when he said at the end of a Warsaw speech Putin “cannot remain in power.” Biden later said he wasn’t calling for regime change, but he also wouldn’t “walk back” what he said.

The Kremlin accuses the U.S. of turning Ukraine into a proxy war against Moscow in order to so badly bleed the country that it falls apart. U.S. policymakers, chief among them the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, have seen neutralizing Russia by gaining control of Ukraine as a strategy for seizing control of Eurasia, as examined in a recent analysis by Monthly Review.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, denounced the West on Wednesday for trying to make Ukraine a “second Afghanistan.”

“Those who tried to make Afghanistan the center of world politics are now trying to replace Afghanistan with Ukraine,” Lavrov said, speaking in China ahead of a summit on Afghanistan. China, Russia, the U.S. and Pakistan are attending the summit.

There were glimmers of hope Tuesday that Ukraine and Russia might find agreement on a ceasefire after talks ended in Istanbul with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acting as mediator.

The talks laid out a possible road map for a peace deal and gave context to what each side may consider acceptable.

Anti-tank barriers sit outside a house painted with the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Ukraine said it was willing to not join NATO in return for security guarantees to ensure any future military aggression by Russia would trigger a response from the United States and European allies. Ukrainian diplomats say such a guarantee would be an equivalent to NATO’s Article 5, the clause underpinning the military alliance’s mutual defense pledge.

For its part, Russia said it would be not object to Ukraine joining the European Union in exchange for not seeking NATO membership, which Putin called a “red line” in the weeks before his invasion.

Only hours after the outlines of a ceasefire emerged from talks in Istanbul, American and Ukrainian diplomats said they did not believe Russia would hold up a promise to “drastically reduce” its attacks on Kyiv, the capital, and Chernihiv, a battered and partially encircled city north of Kyiv.

By Wednesday, hopes for a cessation in hostilities any time soon were dashed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking with reporters, said Russia saw nothing very promising or that looked like a breakthrough in the peace talks, Reuters reported.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country would not cede any territory to Russia, a position that was at odds with what seemed to be Ukraine’s position at the peace talks. Zelenskyy had said before the talks that retaking all the territories held by Russian forces would lead to World War III, a statement that suggested he was willing to relinquish control of the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea.

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By Wednesday, Kyiv continued to call on the West to keep up the flow of weapons and its leaders said the war in Ukraine must be won on the battlefield to stop Russia from taking aim at other countries in its sphere of influence. Ukraine is asking for artillery, tanks, fighter jets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and volunteers. The NATO allies are spending billions of dollars on arms for Ukraine and shipping most of them through Poland.

As has happened since the start of the war, both sides on Wednesday were touting their battlefield successes and accusing the enemy of war crimes.

Ukraine claimed it had shot down a Russian fighter-bomber near Kharkiv on Tuesday and reported more Russian shelling of towns and cities – and more civilian deaths. It warned that Russia appeared ready for an attack on the Black Sea port city of Odessa and that it was bringing in fresh troops.

Russia, too, claimed it was hitting Ukrainian forces hard and that it had taken out numerous command posts, multiple launch rocket systems, drones, tanks and depots for ammunition and fuel in recent days.

“The enemy is running out of forces and means, including ammunition,” Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, claimed on Channel One, a main Russian television channel.

Both sides say they are winning the war with Kyiv claiming that Russian troops are demoralized and unwilling to fight after suffering so many losses. Thousands of soldiers have been killed though it won't be until the war is over when good estimates become available. Ukraine said it won't release the number of its dead until after the war. Russia last week acknowledged 1,351 troop deaths.

Although Russia has not achieved knock-out punches as it likely hoped to due to stiff Ukrainian resistance, it has delivered heavy blows to Ukraine's forces.

At the start of the invasion, Ukrainian troops were as numerous or larger than Russia's invading force of between 150,000-200,000, but Russia has the upper hand because of the size of its military and its abundance of weaponry. Ukraine ordered a mass mobilization of men between the ages of 18 and 60 and thousands of civilians have taken up arms.

After more than a month of war, Russia has begun concentrating its forces in eastern Ukraine where some 60,000 Ukrainian forces are slowly losing ground to pro-Russian and Russian advances in Donbas. The Ukrainians are in danger of being encircled.

A local resident looks for personal items in the rubble of her house, destroyed during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, in the village of Yasnohorodka, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

On Wednesday, Russia accused Ukrainian artillery of launching rockets at civilians in Russian-held areas of eastern Ukraine, killing at least one person. Russia also has said Ukraine is shelling inside Russian territory in recent days with four soldiers reportedly wounded Wednesday.

Fierce fighting continued to take place in Mariupol, a southeastern port city on the Sea of Azov that has seen brutal street fighting.

Both sides are charging that numerous war crimes have been committed there, including the bombing of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of people were sheltering. There have been unverified reports of rape and torture.

The United Nations human rights agency on Wednesday said it feared that thousands of civilians may have been killed in Mariupol. City officials have said up to 5,000 civilians are dead.

Mariupol may fall within days to Russian forces, military experts say. Its capture would be a strategic victory for Russia and potentially allow it to deploy more troops toward heavy fighting in Donbas, the name given for eastern parts of Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting a war since 2014.

On the economic front, a showdown has erupted over the Kremlin’s demand that European nations pay for oil and natural gas in rubles. The Kremlin says this ruble payment system will start soon, though it has not set a deadline.

Russia is both trying to shore up its devastated currency in the face of crippling sanctions and seeking to punish the European Union, which has exempted Russia’s oil and gas exports from sanctions because it relies so heavily on them.

So far, European leaders have rejected paying in rubles and there is a risk Russia could start turning off its oil and gas spigot.

Such a move would hurt both Russia, which collects more than $800 million a day in sales, and the EU. Cutting off Russian energy could potentially cause deep damage to EU economies and German business leaders are warning about massive problems if factories have to close down.

The bloc gets about 45% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia and there is no quick substitution. Soaring fuel prices have sparked protests in Spain, Greece and elsewhere and EU leaders are scrambling to cushion the pain for consumers and keep businesses afloat.

“I still hope that we will be able to find a solution that would take into account our requirement,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told RT, the Russian state news channel. “We need to find a compromise solution, I hope that this will happen over the next few days.”

Frans Timmermans, the EU's climate policy chief, said the bloc is gearing up for disruptions in energy supplies.

“We are prepared for any such cases. We will, of course, work closely with member states to have everybody be prepared for any sort of situations,” Timmermans told a news conference.

Meanwhile, the EU has kept up its blockade of Russian goods, services and Kremlin-funded news outlets. On Wednesday, the General Court, the EU's second highest court, upheld a decision by the EU to block RT France. RT and Sputnik have been taken off the air in Europe because they are accused of spreading Kremlin propaganda.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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