Russia announced Tuesday it will significantly scale back military operations near Ukraine’s capital and a northern city, as the outlines of a possible deal to end the grinding war came into view at the latest round of talks.
Ukraine’s delegation at the conference, held in Istanbul, laid out a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.
Moscow’s public reaction was positive, and the negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday, five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.
Amid the talks, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow has decided to “fundamentally … cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
He did not immediately spell out what that would mean in practical terms.
The announcement was met with skepticism from the U.S. and others.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia cannot be trusted. Although the signals from the talks are “positive,” they ”can’t silence explosions of Russian shells,” he said in a video address.
Zelenskyy said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia’s hand, adding that “we shouldn’t let down our guard” because the invading army still “has a great potential to continue attacks against our country.”
Ukraine will continue negotiations, he said, but officials do not trust the word of the country that continues “fighting to destroy us.”
While Moscow portrayed it as a goodwill gesture, its ground troops have become bogged down and taken heavy losses in their bid to seize Kyiv and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to lower its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is gaining control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden, asked whether the Russian announcement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue its assault, said: “We’ll see. I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. In the tense buildup to the invasion, the Russian military announced that some units were loading equipment onto rail cars and preparing to return to their home bases after completing exercises. At the time, Putin was signaling interest in diplomacy. But 10 days later, Russia launched its invasion.