Ukrainian service members stand beside a damaged building in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 18. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/UPI | License Photo
March 29 (UPI) -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday night said that Russia's pledge to reduce military activity hasn't caused the "scale of challenges" in the country to diminish.
In an address shared to social media, Zelensky said the situation in Ukraine "hasn't become easier" and that Russia's claims that it would scale back its military activity around the capital Kyiv and in the northern city of Chernihiv "don't drown out the explosions of Russian bombs."
"The scale of challenges hasn't diminished. The Russian army still has a sizable potential to carry on their attacks against our country. They have plenty of equipment and people who are disenfranchised who they could send into the fire of war," he said.
Zelensky's comments came after negotiators from Kyiv and Moscow met face-to-face on Tuesday to negotiate an end to Russia's bloody war in Ukraine for the first time in weeks as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted the meeting at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, urged both countries to find a way to stop fighting.
Russian officials later announced that they had agreed to "reduce military activity" around Kyiv and Chernihiv -- two locations that have been under heavy shelling for weeks.
Zelensky, however, said that Ukrainians can't trust the words of representatives of a country that is "still pursuing our annihilation."
"On this very basis I regard the reports on the negotiation process, which continues on different levels with the representatives of the Russian Federation," Zelensky said. "The enemy is still on our territory. They carry on shelling our cities. Mariupol is besieged. Rocket and air attacks are not stopping."
U.S. Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday said that the United States believes what Russia has promised "is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal, and that we should all be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine."
He added that a real, believable commitment would involve a complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.
"They have an opportunity here, an opportunity that they have missed, many, many times over the last month to end this war and to do it responsibly and negotiate in good faith," Kirby said. "We hope that they'll do that. But the war could end today if Mr. Putin did the right thing and actually did withdraw all his forces from Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty."
Amid the skepticism over Russia's claims, Zelensky urged the international community to keep sanctions against Russia in place as negotiations continue.
"Some countries might not expect that certain negotiations will affect the lifting of sanctions against the Russian Federation. The question of sanctions cannot even be raised until the war is over, until we get what belongs to us back, and until we restore justice," he said.
The in-person talks in Turkey were the first since officials from both sides met in Antalya in Turkey earlier this month. No real progress was found at any prior peace talks, but both sides agreed to keep talking. Since then, additional talks via remote video link have also failed to resolve differences between Kyiv and Moscow.
Also, chief Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky could meet once negotiators agree to a draft peace agreement.
"We have discussed all contentious issues, more or less," Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Zelensky, said, according to The New York Times. "Our proposals have been made."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Russian (L) and Ukrainian delegations on Tuesday before the start of new peace talks, at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Turkish President Press Office via EPA-EFE
Ukrainian officials said the two sides bargained over international security guarantees for Ukraine at Tuesday's talks.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the peace talks will now advance to a higher level and include the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine to iron out details of Tuesday's agreements.
"This war that caused thousands of people to die and millions of others to be displaced should stop," he said according to the Times.
Medinsky suggested that a meeting take place between Putin and Zelensky at the same time the countries' foreign ministers initial a bilateral treaty.
"If the work on the treaty and a required compromise proceeds swiftly, the possibility of peace will be much closer," Medinsky said according to the Russian state-run TASS news agency.
"First, a treaty is drafted, then it is approved by the negotiators, signed by foreign ministers at a personal meeting," he added. "And only after that a possible meeting between [Putin and Zelensky] is organized to sign this treaty.
"It could be a multilateral meeting involving guarantor nations of peace and security in Ukraine."
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said previously on Tuesday that Kyiv considered a cease-fire its highest priority, but also hoped to at least get some consensus on humanitarian assistance for millions of Ukrainian civilians. Kuleba added, however, that Ukraine would not yield on shrinking its borders to Russia.
Before the talks, Zelensky said that he was willing to declare neutrality -- something that Russia has demanded -- and also was open to a possible compromise over disputed separatist-held regions in far eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.
Earlier Tuesday, Erdogan said that both sides had a "responsibility" to find a solution.
"We have now entered a period where concrete results are needed," Erdogan said, according to The Guardian. "[It should be] possible to reach a solution acceptable to the international community. [Continued fighting is] in no one's interest."
The Kremlin has recently concentrated on expanding territory controlled by those pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas. Putin last month declared the Donbas region to be fully independent of Ukraine like Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.
During the new negotiations, Russian forces continued to assault targets across Ukraine as the war nears its sixth week -- but stiff Ukrainian resistance pushed Russian fighters back around Kyiv.
A Ukrainian woman rides a bicycle past damaged houses after a Russian airstrike in the village of Ulica Szkolna in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE
On the ground, Ukrainian forces recaptured the Kyiv suburb of Irpin from Russia, but intelligence officials said Moscow has accelerated damage to infrastructure around the country.
A large portion of a regional government building in the key southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv was destroyed on Tuesday by a Russian missile attack, trapping several people.
British intelligence said that Mariupol, another southern port city, remains under Ukraine's control despite relentless bombardment by Russia that's damaged much of the city.
Ukrainian forces also report successful efforts in pushing some Russian forces back in the Kherson region, an area that was captured by Russia early this month.
"Several more settlements in the Kherson region have been liberated," Oleksandr Vilkul, the top official in Kryvyi Rih, said late Monday according to CNN. "The invaders are at a distance from Kryvyi Rih of at least [25 miles]."
Ukrtelecom, Ukraine's largest Internet provider, reported a major cyberattack on Monday by Russian forces.
European Union leaders attend a summit at the Chateau de Versailles near Paris on March 11, 2022. Photo by the European Union/ UPI | License Photo