Putin insists offensive proceeding as planned

As talk grows of potential Ukraine ceasefire, country’s neutrality said on table

Both sides show optimism, but divides remain deep as Russian assaults continue; Ukrainian negotiator insists country needs strong defense guarantees

A view of a bomb crater after Russian shelling in the central of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 16, 2022. (Pavel Dorogoy/AP)
A view of a bomb crater after Russian shelling in the central of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 16, 2022. (Pavel Dorogoy/AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Both Russia and Ukraine projected optimism ahead of another scheduled round of talks Wednesday, even as Moscow’s forces rained fire on Kyiv and other major cities in a bid to crush the resistance that has frustrated Kremlin hopes for a lightning victory.

With Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital stalled, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic.”

The UK’s Financial Times reported that there has been progress on a 15-point unsettled plan that will include a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal, if Kyiv commits to neutrality along with unspecified limitations on its armed forces. It cited three people involved in the talks as sources for the information.

According to the paper, the deal, discussed in full for the first time between the sides on Monday, could see Kyiv abandon hopes enshrined in its constitution of joining NATO and agree to not host foreign military bases or weapons on its soil. In return, it will receive certain guarantees of protection from Western allies.

However, such guarantees from NATO countries could be a major obstacle, as is the fate of Crimea — which Russia invaded and seized from Ukraine in 2014 — and the pro-Moscow Donbas region, which has been taken over by pro-Russian forces, the report said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser and top negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak denied on Wednesday Russian claims that Ukraine was open to adopting a model of neutrality comparable to Sweden’s or Austria’s. Podolyak said on Telegram that Ukraine needed powerful allies and “clearly defined security guarantees” to keep it safe.

He called for a legally binding security agreement, signed by international partners, who would “not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as they do today.”

Members of delegations from Ukraine and Russia, including Russian presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky (second left), Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak (second right), Volodymyr Zelensky’s ‘Servant of the People’ lawmaker Davyd Arakhamia (third right), hold talks in Belarus’ Gomel region, on February 28, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergei Kholodilin/Belta/AFP)

Speaking to the FT, Podolyak expressed doubts in relying on security commitments from other countries, saying “there is no effective system of European security now, which would be moderated by NATO. As soon as a serious war began in Europe, NATO quickly stepped aside.”

He said that under any agreement Ukraine would “definitely retain its own army,” and noted that banning foreign military bases in his country is forbidden under national laws.

Yet Podolyak indicated there could be a compromise on the territories occupied by Russia and its allies in 2014.

“Disputed and conflict territories [are] in a separate case,” he said. “So far, we are talking about a guaranteed withdrawal from the territories that have been occupied since the start of the military operation on February 24.”

Ukrainian officials still doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin is sincere in seeking peace, and are concerned he is using the talks to buy time while he regroups his forces to press on with the offensive, the report said.

Later, Podolyak tweeted that the FT report contains only the Russian position, and not Ukraine’s counter-proposal.

He said that the only matters he can say are under discussion are a ceasefire, Russian troops leaving Ukraine, and security guarantees.

The Kremlin earlier Wednesday said that a Ukraine neutral to NATO, along the lines of Sweden or Austria, was being discussed at the talks.

Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelensky acknowledged Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realize its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.

Theater bombed

Meanwhile, the fighting continued as Russia stepped up its attacks on areas where it had met fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces.

In the encircled seaport of Mariupol, a Russian airstrike destroyed a theater building where hundreds of people were sheltering, the city council said. There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed that Russian forces dropped a large bomb on Mariupol’s theater.

“Russians could not have not known this was a civilian shelter,” he said.

Inna Sovsun, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told CNN “thousands” were sheltering in the palatial building, and it’s not known how many survived.

Nowhere has suffered more than Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov. Local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people.

Nearly 30,000 people managed to escape the city on Tuesday in thousands of vehicles by way of a humanitarian corridor, city officials said.

Ukraine officials said at least three people were killed in a Russian attack on a market in Kharkiv, another city besieged and attacked by Russia.

The State Emergency Service said another five people were injured in the shelling. It published pictures showing the outdoor market being engulfed in flames.

Ten people were killed when Russian forces opened fire on a line of people waiting for bread in Chernihiv, the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said.

Video from the scene showed what appeared to be at least 10 bodies on the ground as people rushed to provide aid.

In the capital Kyiv, residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russia shelled areas in and around the city. A 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.

Moscow pressured, Putin defiant

International pressure against Moscow mounted and its isolation grew as the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, expelled Russia. And the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered it to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little hope it would comply.

Speaking to a government meeting, Putin said the operation in Ukraine was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans,” and decried Western sanctions against Moscow. He accused the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country.”

He also claimed that troops bombarding Kyiv and other cities have no plans to take over the country, in comments carried by Russian state media.

According to analysts in Ukraine and the West, Russia’s invasion has been dogged by logistical problems and a Ukrainian resistance fiercer than expected.

Struggling to advance, Russian forces have bombed apartment buildings and appear to be targeting civilians, killing hundreds of non-combatants. Troops have been accused of taking people hostage as human shields and of other war crimes.

However, Putin said that the military’s tactics “fully justifies itself.”

Biden sends more weapons

Zelensky went before the US Congress in a video call saying that Russia “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.”

US President Joe Biden has resisted Zelensky’s requests to send warplanes to Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone over the country because of the danger of triggering a war between the US and Russia.

But hours after Zelensky addressed Congress, Biden said the US is sending more anti-aircraft, anti-armor weapons, and drones to Ukraine to assist in its defense against Russia.

US President Joe Biden speaks about additional security assistance that his administration will provide to Ukraine in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2022. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The president’s comments came as he formally announced his administration was sending an additional $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, making a total of $2 billion in aid sent to Kyiv since Biden took office more than a year ago. About $1 billion in aid has been sent in just the last week.

“We’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead,” Biden said.

The White House is also considering giving Ukraine access to US-made Switchblade drones that can fly and strike Russian targets, according to a separate person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly.

NATO staying out

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was looking to substantially bolster forces on its eastern flank after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but would not send troops to the war-torn country.

NATO member Poland on Tuesday suggested the alliance deploy an armed “peace mission” in Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid in the face of Moscow’s devastating onslaught.

“We support peace efforts, we call on Russia, on President [Vladimir] Putin to withdraw its forces, but we have no plans of deploying NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told journalists after a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

NATO has already rebuffed pleas from non-member state Ukraine to intervene in the conflict, including by imposing a no-fly zone to help halt Russian bombings.

The US-led alliance says its direct involvement could spark a confrontation with Russia that may spill over into nuclear war.

NATO allies have instead been sending weapons to help Ukrainian forces to defend their country, especially vital portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems.

Moscow has warned that any deliveries are legitimate targets for its military to strike.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after an extraordinary meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on March 16, 2022. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

NATO leaders are set to hold an emergency summit next week in Brussels on the Ukraine war and their response to Russia’s assault.

Stoltenberg said it was up to the Ukrainians “to decide whether they aspire for NATO membership or not.”

The fighting has sent more than 3 million people fleeing Ukraine, by the UN’s estimate. The UN reported that over 700 civilians have been confirmed as killed, but that the real number is higher.

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