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De-escalation not ceasefire: Russia on reducing operations around Kyiv

De-escalation not ceasefire: Russia on reducing operations around Kyiv
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Kyiv: Russia's military announced on Tuesday it will "fundamentally" scale back operations near Ukraine's capital and a northern city, as talks brought a possible deal to end the grinding war into view.

Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the move was meant to increase trust in the talks after several rounds of negotiations failed to halt what has devolved into a bloody campaign of attrition.

While Russia portrayed the step as a goodwill gesture, it comes as the Kremlin's troops have become bogged down in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance that has thwarted President Vladimir Putin's hopes for a quick military victory.

Fomin said Moscow had 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.

Ukraine's military said it had noted withdrawals of some forces around Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN "we haven't seen anything to corroborate reports of Russia withdrawing significant forces from around Kyiv". "But what we have seen over the last couple of days is they have stopped trying to advance on Kyiv."

However, Russia's promise to scale down military operations around Kyiv and northern Ukraine does not represent a ceasefire and talks on a formal agreement with Kyiv have a long way to go, Moscow's lead negotiator in peace talks said on Tuesday.

Russian negotiators earlier on Tuesday gave an undertaking to sharply scale back military activity around Ukraine's capital Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, in the most tangible sign yet of progress towards a peace deal.

"This is not a ceasefire but this is our aspiration, gradually to reach a de-escalation of the conflict at least on these fronts," Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian team, said in an interview with the TASS news agency.

Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted: "This sounds like more of an acknowledgement of the situation around Kyiv where Russia's advance has been stalled for weeks and Ukrainian forces have had recent successes. Russia doesn't have the forces to encircle the city." Negotiators from Russia and Ukraine met on Tuesday in Istanbul, their first face-to-face talks in two weeks.

Earlier talks, held in person in Belarus or by video, made no progress toward ending the more than month-long war that has killed thousands and driven over 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including almost four million who have fled the country.

Fomin suggested there had been progress on Tuesday, saying negotiations on preparing an agreement on Ukraine's neutrality and non-nuclear status, as well as on giving Ukraine security guarantees, are turning to practical matters.

Ukraine's team, meanwhile, set out a detailed framework for a peace deal under which the country would remain neutral but its security would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the US, Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, in an arrangement similar to NATO's "an attack on one is an attack on all principle".

Ukraine said it would also be willing to hold talks over a 15-year period on the future of the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized by Russia in 2014, with both countries agreeing not to use their armed forces to resolve the issue in the meantime. Russia's views on the proposals were not immediately clear.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the talks had made meaningful progress and the two sides had reached a consensus and common understanding on some issues.

He said the meeting would be followed by a one between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at an unspecified time. A meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents is also on the agenda, he said.

Moscow has demanded, among other things that Ukraine drop any hope of joining the NATO alliance, which it sees as a threat.

Ahead of the talks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality. Zelenskyy also said he was open to compromise over the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years.

But even as the negotiators assembled in Istanbul, Russian forces hit an oil depot in western Ukraine late on Monday and blasted a gaping hole on Tuesday morning in a nine-storey government administration building in the southern port city of Mykolaiv. At least seven people were killed in that attack, Zelenskyy said. "It's terrible. They waited for people to go to work before striking the building," said regional governor Vitaliy Kim. "I overslept. I'm lucky."

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