Russia, Ukraine negotiators hold in-person talks in Turkey as Moscow says it will pull back from Kyiv, Chernih
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The first face-to-face talks in nearly three weeks between members of the Ukraine and Russian delegations concluded Wednesday in Istanbul, Turkey, as the war entering into a 34th day has amounted to a ground operation of attrition, with several Ukrainian cities still facing heavy Russian bombardment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the meeting produced the most significant progress yet in the peace negotiations, according to Reuters.
Russia’s deputy defense minister told reporters on Tuesday that Moscow has decided to “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.” The Ukrainian government also recognized the withdrawal of certain units of armed forces of the Russian Federation from the territories of Kyiv and Chernihiv blasts, warning that “At the same time, there is a high risk of the Russian occupiers attacking military and civilian infrastructure.”
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed both sides as the meeting commenced, saying they have a “historic responsibility” to stop the “tragedy” happening in Ukraine.
“We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace. Prolonging the conflict is not in anyone’s interest,” Erdogan said, as he greeted the two delegations seated on opposite sides of a long table.
Ukrainian television said discussions at the palace in Istanbul began with a “cold welcome,” without the two sides exchanging handshakes, according to Reuters.
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Ahead of the talks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and was open to compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas. But he warned the “ruthless war” continued, and even the negotiators assembled, Russian forces hit an oil depot in western Ukraine and a government building in the south.
Neither Zelenskyy nor Russian President Vladimir Putin were present for talks in Turkey Tuesday.
In fighting that has devolved into a back-and-forth stalemate, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital, Kyiv, Zelenskyy said late Monday in his nighttime video address to the nation. But he warned that Russian troops were regrouping to take the area back.
Putin’s aim of a quick military victory has been thwarted by stiff Ukrainian resistance — but still hopes were not high for a breakthrough. Reflecting skepticism among Ukraine’s Western allies, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she thought the Russian president was “not serious about talks.”
Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Tuesday that “intensive consultations are underway right now on some important issues, the most important of which is agreement on international security guarantees for Ukraine, because with this agreement we will be able to end the war as Ukraine needs,” according to Reuters.
Speaking on national television about the talks in Turkey, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said “We are not trading people, land or sovereignty.”
“The minimum program will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum program is reaching an agreement on a ceasefire,” he said, according to Reuters.
Ukrainian Member of Parliament, David Arakhamia, reportedly met in Istanbul with the head of the Russian delegation and Putin’s aide, Vladimir Medinsky, ahead of the scheduled talks.
Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a longtime ally of Putin, was overseeing the talks in-person in Turkey, though his exact role remained unclear.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Football Club owner who has been sanctioned by both the U.K. and the European Union, has been serving as an unofficial mediator approved by both countries — but mystery about his role has been deepened by reports Monday that he may have been poisoned during an earlier round of talks in Kyiv.
The investigative news outlet Bellingcat reported Monday that Abramovich and two Ukrainian delegates – Crimean Tatar lawmaker Rustem Umerov and possibly Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov – suffered eye pain and skin irritation consistent with chemical weapons poisoning after talks in Kyiv on March 3.
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The British government said the allegations were “very concerning,” but Peskov said the reports “do not correspond to reality.” An advisor for Zelenskyy also denied the reports when contacted by Fox News.
The Wall Street Journal, which also reported about the suspected poisoning, said Zelenskyy has asked President Biden not to issue U.S. sanctions against Abramovich because he had signaled openness to discussing humanitarian issues, specifically the evacuation of civilians from the besieged Mariupol.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.