(CN) — Ukraine and Russia made tentative progress on reaching a ceasefire and the outlines of a peace agreement on Tuesday with the Russian military saying it was “drastically reducing” its attacks on Kyiv and the areas surrounding the capital to build “mutual trust.”
While negotiations appeared to make headway in Istanbul, reservations and skepticism about a deal remained strong and fighting continued in some parts of Ukraine.
By late Tuesday evening, Ukrainian and American officials cast doubt on Russia’s sincerity about cutting back attacks on Kyiv.
“So far, the words of the Russians about how they will reduce the intensity of hostilities are just words,” said Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet. He said there continued to be “cannonade” around Irpin, a city outside Kyiv that Ukraine recaptured in recent days.
During a visit to Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there are no “signs of real seriousness” about Russia seeking a peace deal.
“There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does. We’re focused on the latter,” Blinken said.
However, U.S. officials told CNN that Russian forces were beginning to withdraw from near Kyiv. But all of this may be part of Russia’s battlefield strategy to refocus its efforts on encircling up to 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.
“The Russians are still looking for a battlefield victory, and Ukrainians are not willing to cave,” Daniel Fried, an expert at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told Foreign Policy.
After the round of negotiations ended in Turkey, both sides hailed the discussions as constructive and each side offered to make concessions.
Ukraine said it was willing to consider becoming a neutral state not aligned with NATO and Russia said it was not opposed to Ukraine joining the European Union. Ukraine also suggested it was ready to give up the Russian-held territories of Crimea and Donbas.
Any agreement, Kyiv said, would need to be covered by security guarantees to ensure that any future Russian attack could trigger a military response from those countries signing onto a prospective deal. The United States, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel are being cited as potential guarantors.
Kyiv also said any deal would need to be approved in a referendum, a proposition that would require Russian troops to withdraw. A referendum would also have to take into account more than 4 million Ukrainians who’ve have fled the country due to the war and who might not want to return to a devastated country.
Russian delegates said the Kremlin was drastically reducing its offensive on Kyiv and surrounding areas, including the besieged city of Chernihiv, to strengthen “mutual trust” in the talks.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said there would be a “several-fold decrease” in the military activity “in order to bolster mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for the further talks.”
Russia's main negotiator, a Russian nationalist and former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinksy, said the decrease in military activity was not a ceasefire.
The negotiations, taking place with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acting as mediator, were scheduled to carry on Wednesday, but both sides said they were returning to their respective capitals without holding more talks on Wednesday. Diplomats said the goal was to hold a summit where Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin can sign an agreement.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s negotiations,” Paul Stronski, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy.