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Ukraine, Russia negotiate peace terms, but fighting carries on 

Peace talks are intensifying after three bloody weeks of fighting in Ukraine, but the chances of a ceasefire or a peace deal remain very uncertain as reports of fighting and civilian deaths continue to come in from across the country.

(CN) — After three weeks of war in Ukraine, talks to end the fighting intensified on Wednesday even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to intervene to stop Russia's invasion and a bomb was dropped on a theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering.  

Wednesday’s hope for peace talks were overshadowed by more reports of overnight shelling of towns and cities, intense firefights, Ukrainian counterattacks and more civilian deaths.

By Wednesday evening, Russia was accused of what could be its most brutal attack on civilians yet after a Russian warplane allegedly dropped a bomb on a large theater in the center of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol. Images showed the building turned to rubble. Mariupol’s city officials estimated that more than 1,000 people were sheltering in the Drama Theater. It remained unclear late Wednesday how many people may have been killed.  

Mariupol is the scene of horrific fighting and a catastrophic humanitarian disaster with hundreds of thousands of people lacking adequate electricity, water, food and medical supplies. Ukraine has said more than 2,500 people have been killed in the city since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. Hardcore Ukrainian fighters affiliated with the ultra-nationalistic far-right Azov Regiment are fighting Russian forces there and the battle has moved closer to the city center, according to military sources.  

Elsewhere, Ukraine reported that at least 10 civilians waiting in line for bread in Chernihiv were killed by Russian shelling on Wednesday morning. Chernihiv, a medium-sized city north of the capital Kyiv, has been the site of horrific fighting for more than two weeks. The city lies on the path Russian troops have taken from Belarus to attack Kyiv.  

Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied any responsibility for the attack on the Mariupol theater and instead accused Azov soldiers of blowing it up, according to RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency. Russia also denied attacking civilians in Chernihiv. Throughout the war, Russia has consistently denied attacking civilians and blamed instead Ukrainian forces of seeking to cause “provocations” by bombing up civilian buildings, attacking from residential buildings and using civilians as “human shields.”  

With so much horror and death in this fratricidal war, the hope is that both sides can end the fighting in the coming days by agreeing to a ceasefire and a peace deal.   

This week, Zelenskyy's government resumed ceasefire talks with Russia and as a major concession Kyiv is considering agreeing to not join NATO in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian troops.   

A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces stands next to his APC in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

Mykhailo Podoliak, one of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, told PBS that the two sides were working to get Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy to meet in the coming days, Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency reported.   

“The only option to end this war is direct talks between the two presidents, and that is what we are working on with these peace talks. We are working on documents that the presidents will be able to discuss further and sign,” he said. He added that he thought a ceasefire could be called soon.    

The Financial Times reported that negotiators had drawn up a tentative 15-point plan to end the war. Ukraine renouncing NATO membership is a cornerstone to the deal.   

Under the proposals, Ukraine also would accept limits on its armed forces, promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry on its territory but get security protection from its allies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey, the Financial Times reported, citing three people involved in the talks.    

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For its part, Russia would agree to withdraw its troops from areas it has captured. The future status of territories claimed in 2014 by Russia and pro-Russian separatists — the Crimea peninsula and the Donbas region — remain hurdles, the newspaper said.   

A peace agreement still seemed hard to envision on Wednesday after 21 days of gruesome war and with leaders on both sides dug in and showing little willingness to compromise.   

In a video speech to the U.S. Congress, Zelenskyy vowed to keep fighting Russia and asked the United States to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.   

“Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future,” he said.  

Shortly after Zelenskyy gave his speech, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged $800 million more in military aid to Ukraine, a move that will only provoke more anger in the Kremlin over U.S. influence in Ukraine. Adding to the hostilities, Biden later called Putin a “war criminal” when pressed by journalists. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov fired off an angry reply.   

“We consider unacceptable and unforgivable such rhetoric of the head of state, whose bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world,” Peskov said, alluding to U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.  

Since war broke out with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine following the installment of a pro-Western government in Kyiv during the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” the U.S. has spent about $6 billion on beefing up Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression. Ukraine is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from other NATO nations too. 

Pro-Russian political analysts accuse Washington of deploying a strategy to weaken Russia by luring it into a protracted and catastrophic conflict over Ukraine. A possible invasion by Russia of Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc states has been a subject of speculation and concern for years.      

A solid peace deal seems unlikely for now, according to Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm.  

“Even though both Moscow and Kyiv have somewhat softened their positions and are engaged in active talks, a breakthrough remains unlikely in the near term,” he said in a briefing note. “Key parts of a possible deal are still very ambiguous, and it is also unclear whether President Vladimir Putin is committed to a peace deal or simply seeking to gain time to allow his troops to regroup ahead of a new offensive.”  

He said that Moscow might request the removal of Western sanctions before agreeing to a ceasefire.  

Inside Ukraine, Zelenskyy is under immense pressure domestically to not concede to Russian demands, which include recognizing Crimea as a Russian territory and giving the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk autonomous status.  

Ukrainian firefighters work by a destroyed apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

On Wednesday, Putin insisted that his country had no designs to occupy Ukraine even as his troops continued to wreak bloodshed and havoc across the country. But he also said Russia will “never allow Ukraine to become a stronghold of aggressive actions against our country.”   

Still, after three weeks of bloody fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians and thousands of soldiers, both sides might be closer to ending this war. But the prospects of a ceasefire deal holding remain very uncertain.  

Russia may be eager to end the war because it has suffered major military losses and effectively seen its economy blockaded by the West.  

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Podoliak, Zelenskyy’s adviser, expressed confidence that the astounding Ukrainian defense has weakened Putin’s hand. He said Russia is showing no desire to send in more resources and troops into Ukraine.   

“They were planning to move in their troops, capture as much territory as possible in three days, and basically have a blitzkrieg,” he said. “They did not do that, and they will not do that. They are stuck fighting in their current positions, and they have no chances whatsoever to move further into Ukrainian territory.”

He added: “So, this has been a wakeup call for them, and their position has softened significantly.”   

After inflicting so much unexpected damage to Russia's superior military, the Ukrainian side may see a chance to declare victory through a ceasefire and save its people and cities from even more catastrophic damage. Also, both sides may be unwilling to start a bloody urban battle over Kyiv.  

So far, Russian troops have partially encircled the capital but they have not been able to enter it due to fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces. Russia has opted to not relentlessly bomb the city but instead pushed convoys to its outskirts in an apparent bid to seize Ukraine's central government and install a pro-Russian regime.  

For now, the conflict does not appear to be widening, though there are fears it could spiral out of control. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg again affirmed that the military alliance has no plan to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine because that would risk sparking a bigger war with Russia.

The economic blockade of Russia by the West is forcing the Kremlin to reassure Russians that the country will weather the crisis.  

Putin signed an executive order Wednesday to “ensure socioeconomic stability and protection” in Russia and offset the Western sanctions on Russia and its politicians, oligarchs, companies and banks. The Kremlin is pledging to raise wages, shore up businesses, cut red tape, set up support funds and take other measures to handle the economic storm.  

On Wednesday, Moscow faced a big challenge as it was due to pay $117 million in interest on two sovereign Eurobonds and it has three more payments due this month. If Russia doesn’t pay, it would mark the first sovereign default on foreign currency debt since the Bolshevik Revolution more than a century ago. It defaulted on domestic debt in 1998 during a decade of economic crisis following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  

Russia was at risk of not being able to pay due to Western sanctions that are blocking its access to dollars and euros and seeing its borrowing costs climb much higher. 

To defend itself, it has begun negotiations with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and other major powers not closely aligned with the West of using Chinese yuan for oil and natural gas sales. Russia is seeking to build new ties with China and other non-Western countries as it reels from being excluded from the U.S.-led Western financial markets and systems.

Putin once again spoke about the reasons for launching the invasion during a call with regional officials in Russia on Wednesday.  

He said the invasion was necessary to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who he claimed had “been subjected to real genocide” and constant shelling by the Ukrainian army ever since the Maidan Revolution. Ukrainian experts dismiss Putin’s claims about genocide against ethnic Russians, though people there have suffered abuse, alleged atrocities and been victims of war. Before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, about 14,000 people were killed during long-simmering eight years of war in Donbas and up to 2 million people fled the region.    

On Wednesday, the International Court of Justice in The Hague dismissed Putin’s claims about preventing genocide as the purpose of his invasion and ordered him to stop waging war. The United Nations’ court’s order likely will have no effect on the Kremlin’s war.  

Putin accused Kyiv of not carrying out a peace agreement to end the Donbas war and instead taking bellicose actions that threatened Russia. 

“We have been left with no peaceful alternative to settle the problems that developed through no fault of ours,” he said. “In this situation, we were forced to begin this special military operation.” 

He charged Kyiv of rejecting “opportunities to avoid hostilities.”  

“They did not want to do this. Well, this was their decision; now they will understand what is happening in reality, on the ground,” Putin said. “The operation is being carried out successfully, in strict conformity with the approved plan.” 

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

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