Peace talks produce signs of progress, but no end to war is in sight.
ISTANBUL — The first signs of significant progress in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine emerged on Tuesday, but there was no hint of an imminent end to the suffering, with Russia appearing determined to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine and officials predicting that weeks of further negotiation were needed.
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After three hours of talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian officials said their country was ready to declare itself permanently neutral — forsaking the prospect of joining NATO, a key Russian demand — and discuss Russian territorial claims in exchange for “security guarantees” from a group of other nations. An aide to Ukraine’s president called the Russian delegation “constructive,” while Russia said it would “drastically” scale back its military activity around Kyiv to “increase mutual trust.”
Russia’s statement that it will de-escalate the fighting around Kyiv — even as it keeps pounding other parts of Ukraine — may be little more than putting a positive gloss on its military being stymied in its attempts to seize or encircle the capital. In recent days, Ukrainian counteroffensives around the city have forced back Russian forces in some of the fiercest street battles of the war, though they remain within striking distance of Kyiv.
Now, Russian officials said, the goal will be to take more territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia has installed two separatist statelets that President Vladimir V. Putin recognized last month as independent, but that no other nation has formally acknowledged.
Western officials and security analysts cautioned against taking at face value Russia’s statements about its aims in Kyiv or elsewhere.
President Biden said he would not draw any conclusions about Russia’s intentions “until I see what their actions are.” Speaking after a White House meeting with the prime minister of Singapore, Mr. Biden added, “We’ll see if they follow through with what they are suggesting.”
“In the meantime,” Mr. Biden said, “we’re going to continue to keep strong the sanctions and will continue to provide the Ukrainian military with the capacity to defend themselves.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on a diplomatic trip to Morocco, told reporters, “There is what Russia says and there’s what Russia does,” adding, “and what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has worked hard to present Mr. Putin with a negotiated way to end the war, accompanied by Ukrainian concessions that would not go so far as to make his country a Russian satellite.
The offer to declare a permanent neutral status, Ukrainian officials in Istanbul said, means it would neither join the NATO alliance nor host foreign troops — a scenario that Mr. Putin used as one of the justifications for his invasion.
Ukrainian officials envision an arrangement in which a diverse group of countries — potentially including the United States, Germany, Turkey and China — would commit, if Ukraine were attacked, to providing it with military assistance and to imposing a no-fly zone if necessary. It was not clear that any of those countries had signed on to such guarantees.
“This is probably the best outcome that could’ve been hoped for today,” said Samuel Charap, who studies Russian foreign policy at the RAND Corporation. “The Ukrainians have at least come up with something concrete to address the core Russian demand for Ukraine’s neutrality.”
Ukraine also signaled readiness to consider concessions related to the parts of its territory already occupied by Russia. It proposed a 15-year negotiating process for Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014, and said it was ready to rule out trying to retake it by force. Questions surrounding the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials said, could be discussed at a possible meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky.
Russia, for its part, said it was prepared to accelerate planning for such a summit meeting — something that Mr. Zelensky had long sought and that Moscow had resisted, casting Ukraine’s government as a mere puppet of Washington. But now, the Kremlin appears to be increasingly prepared to deal with Mr. Zelensky — in part because Ukraine’s resistance on the battlefield is leaving it no other choice.
Vladimir Medinsky, the head of Russia’s delegation, said that he viewed Ukraine’s proposals as “a constructive step in the search for a compromise.”
“If the treaty is worked out quickly and the required compromise is found, the possibility of making peace will be much closer,” Mr. Medinsky said.
Ukraine and Russia would need at least two more weeks for talks with Russia and potential guarantor countries, Oleksandr Chalyi, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, told reporters after Tuesday’s session. Turkey said it was prepared to host a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers to flesh out Tuesday’s talks, followed by a possible meeting between the two presidents.
“You have shouldered a historic responsibility,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who hosted Tuesday’s talks at a 19th-century Ottoman palace on the banks of the Bosporus, told the Russian and Ukrainian delegates. “All the world is expecting good news from you.”
Turkey has emerged as a pivotal intermediary in the talks, one of the few countries to maintain close ties to both Russia and Ukraine after the invasion. Though it is a NATO member, Turkey has refused to put in place sanctions against Russia, even as it offers military support to Ukraine. To underscore the latter, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, Mykhailo Podolyak, posted on Twitter on Tuesday a selfie with Haluk Bayraktar, a close associate of Mr. Erdogan and the head of a Turkish company that makes armed drones used by Ukraine.
But despite the positive signals, myriad diplomatic pitfalls remained. For example, Ukraine said that the international security guarantees would not apply to the disputed Donbas, but it is not clear how that area would be defined; the separatists claim far more territory than they controlled before the war.
“The Russian delegation is constructive,” Mr. Podolyak, who is an aide to Mr. Zelensky, said. “This doesn’t mean that the negotiations are easy. They are difficult.”
There was also no reprieve on the ground in Ukraine. On Tuesday morning, a Russian cruise missile strike destroyed part of the main regional government office building in the southern city of Mikolaiv, killing at least nine people and injuring at least 28, Ukrainian officials said.
It was one of many attacks since the Feb. 24 invasion that appeared aimed at disabling government operations; the regional administrator, Vitaly Kim, said his own office was destroyed, but he was not in the building at the time. The Russian advance along the Black Sea coast west of Crimea stalled outside Mikolaiv, in an area that has seen intense combat.
Another Russian missile struck an oil depot on Monday night in the Rivne region in northwestern Ukraine, the second to be destroyed there, according to the regional administrator.
“The scale of the challenges has not diminished,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement. “The Russian army still has significant potential to continue attacks against our state. They still have a lot of equipment and enough people completely deprived of rights whom they can send to the cauldron of war. Therefore, we stay alert and do not reduce our defense efforts.”
The U.S. and British governments confirmed Ukrainian gains in towns around Kyiv — notably Irpin, scene of some of the fiercest street fighting — but advised skepticism about claims that Russia’s stance had changed.
“Has there been some movement by some Russian units away from Kyiv in the last day or so? Yeah, we think so, small numbers,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. But, he added, “We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal, and that we should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas in Ukraine.”
The British Defense Ministry warned that “Russia still poses a significant threat to the city through their strike capability.”
Russia has signaled that it was narrowing its war aims to focus on taking more territory in the Donbas. Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, on Tuesday offered a possible justification for winding down the war effort elsewhere in the country by declaring, in televised remarks in Moscow, that Russia’s initial mission was accomplished.
“In general, the main goals of the first stage of the special operation have been completed,” Mr. Shoigu said. “The combat potential of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus the main attention and main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas.”
Russian forces have taken control of a land bridge along Ukraine’s southeastern coast linking Crimea to the Donbas. The lone holdout in that strip is the center of the devastated port city of Mariupol, where, the Institute for the Study of War reported on Tuesday, the Russians are still gaining ground, slowly tightening the noose around the fighters and civilians who remain.
Thousand of civilians have been killed in Mariupol, according to local officials — a claim that cannot be independently verified — and much of the city has been flattened. It remains under “continuous heavy shelling” by Russian forces, the British Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.
In the nearby port of Berdyansk, captured by the Russians, an evacuation convoy took 34 buses full of civilians out of the city, headed into territory held by Ukraine. In anther occupied city in the region, Melitopol, the mayor said the schools chief had been detained after she and local teachers refused orders by the occupying forces to change what was taught and to teach in Russian, not Ukrainian.
The war has cost Ukraine $564.9 billion in damage and lost economic activity — roughly three times its prewar gross domestic product — Yulia Svyrydenko, the economy minister, said in a Facebook post on Monday.
There are as yet no reliable estimates of civilian casualties, and some four million people have fled the country, along with about six million who are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko and Safak Timur from Istanbul; Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland; Michael D. Shear from Washington; and Lara Jakes from Rabat, Morocco.
Correction: March 29, 2022
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the capital of Ukraine. It is Kyiv, not Lviv.