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Ukraine-Russia ceasefire talks yield glimmers of hope

Peace talks in Istanbul made progress with both sides showing willingness to make compromises. Russia said it would “drastically reduce” its attacks around Kyiv to build trust but fighting continued in parts of Ukraine.

(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.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, gives a speech to welcome the Russian, left, and Ukrainian delegations ahead of their talks in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Turkish Presidency via AP)

But he said that as long as fighting and the bombing of cities continue, he doesn’t “have high hopes.”

“I think the worst could still be ahead of us,” he said.

The negotiations themselves have turned dangerous. A member of Ukraine's negotiating team, Denis Kireev, was shot in early March by Ukrainian agents after he was accused of spying for Russia. Those early talks were held in Belarus but yielded no results.

Then on Monday, news reports emerged that Ukrainian negotiators and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich were potentially the victims of a suspected poisoning in early March during ceasefire talks in Kyiv. The Wall Street Journal reported that they suffered peeling skin, sore eyes and painful tearing. The newspaper said their lives were not in danger. Abramovich is a sanctioned billionaire and owner of Chelsea, a top tier British soccer club. He announced he was selling Chelsea after Putin ordered the Ukraine invasion and he has become an interlocutor in the peace talks.

Before the Istanbul round of negotiations, Ukraine advised its diplomats to not eat or drink anything while at the meeting. The Guardian, though, reported that Abramovich was seen eating and drinking with at least one Ukrainian negotiator, parliament member Rustem Umerov, who'd reportedly been a victim of suspected poisoning too. They were seen Tuesday afternoon at a restaurant next to the luxurious Dolmabahce Palace, where the ceasefire talks were held.

While negotiators tried to find agreement in Istanbul, fighting continued in Ukraine.

Mariupol, a key port city on the Sea of Azov, and towns and cities in the eastern region of Donbas have been the theater for the worst fighting. Russian troops are making slow advances in both areas.

In Mariupol, Russian forces have reportedly cornered Ukrainian troops inside industrial plants. Many Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol are members of the Azov Battalion, a militia incorporated into Ukraine's national guard whose members espouse neo-Nazi ideology. Pro-Russian separatists with the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic claimed they were shooting at Ukrainian helicopters trying to evacuate Azov leaders.

On Tuesday morning, a Russian missile struck the administration building of the southern city of Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people, wounding more than 30 and destroying the high-rise building in the city’s center. The port city of Mykolaiv is located about 70 miles northeast of Odessa, Ukraine’s principal Black Sea port and a city under threat from a Russian amphibious attack.

The economic and diplomatic conflict between the Kremlin and European leaders appears is escalating too with Russia demanding European Union nations pay for Russian natural gas and oil in rubles.

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin by telephone and rejected the demand to pay for Russian energy in rubles.

Other European countries have said the same, setting up a showdown that could lead Russia to reduce gas exports to Europe. Such a step would worsen the economic shock of the Ukraine war in Europe, where fuel prices and inflation are soaring.

Russia, though, relies heavily on its European gas market and it has been raking in more than $800 million a day in sales. Europe gets about 45% of its natural gas, 45% of its coal and 25% of its oil from Russia. Europe has exempted oil, gas, uranium and coal from its massive package of sanctions.

Europeans may become more divided over the war in Ukraine as prices rise and their economies get hurt.

Trucker and farmer protests over fuel prices have rocked Madrid and forced Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to quell unrest with a population-wide fuel subsidy, a temporary rent cap, electricity vouchers, a ban on layoffs and new loans for struggling businesses. Greece is also seeing protests and taking measures to cushion Greeks from the escalating cost of living.

Tuesday also saw European capitals kick out more Russian diplomats. The Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and the Czech Republic said the expulsions were necessary because the 43 Russian envoys were spies. The Netherlands ejected 21 diplomats and Belgium 17.

Moscow meanwhile expelled diplomats from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in retaliation for the previous expulsions of Russian diplomats.

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

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