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Turkish official: Putin not yet ready to meet Zelensky, likely wants more war gains

Erdogan adviser tells NY Times he believes Russian leader seeks ‘stronger position’ ahead of possible summit; British PM Johnson warns against ‘renormalizing’ ties with Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for a working session at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019, in Paris. (Ian Langsdon/Pool via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for a working session at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019, in Paris. (Ian Langsdon/Pool via AP)

As fighting in Ukraine raged on and amid murmurs of a potential ceasefire, a senior Turkish official said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not ready yet to meet for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Zelensky is ready to meet, but Putin thinks that the positions to have this meeting at the leaders’ level are not close enough yet,” Ibrahim Kalin, a chief adviser and spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told The New York Times.

“I believe that meeting will take place at some point. There will be a peace deal at some point. Of course, we all want this to happen sooner rather than later, but probably Putin thinks that he wants to be in a position of strength when he does that, and not appear to be weak, weakened by either military losses or by the economic sanctions.”

Ankara has close ties with Moscow and Kyiv and hosted a landmark meeting between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov in the southern resort city of Antalya last week.

The talks failed to achieve a breakthrough on a ceasefire or humanitarian issues, but highlighted Turkey’s role as a mediator in the war.

In an overnight video address Saturday, Zelensky said Russia is trying to starve his country’s cities into submission but warned that continuing the invasion would exact a toll on Russia for “generations.” The remarks came after Moscow held a mass rally in support of its bogged-down forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on September 29, 2021. (Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik, Kremlin/Pool Photo via AP)

The Ukrainian leader accused the Kremlin in an overnight video address of deliberately creating “a humanitarian catastrophe,” and appealed again for Putin to meet with him to prevent more bloodshed.

Noting that the 200,000 people reported to have attended the rally were similar in number to the Russian forces deployed to Ukraine, Zelensky said Friday’s event in Moscow illustrated the stakes of the largest ground conflict in Europe since World War II.

“Picture for yourself that in that stadium in Moscow there are 14,000 dead bodies and tens of thousands more injured and maimed,” the Ukrainian leader said, standing outside the presidential office in the capital, Kyiv. “Those are the Russian costs throughout the invasion.”

Rescuers carry a Ukrainian soldier saved after 30 hours from the debris of the military school hit by Russian rockets, in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, on March 19, 2022. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Putin lavished praise on his country’s military forces during Friday’s flag-waving rally, which took place on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The event included patriotic songs such as “Made in the USSR,” with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” Putin told the cheering crowd.

Taking to the stage where a sign read “For a world without Nazism,” he railed against his foes in Ukraine with a baseless claim that they are “neo-Nazis” and insisted his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” — a notion flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.

The rally took place as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home. Russian police have detained thousands of anti-war protesters.

Fighting raged on multiple fronts in Ukraine more than three weeks after Russia’s February 24 invasion. UN bodies have confirmed more than 800 civilian deaths since the war began but say the real toll is considerably higher. The UN says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.

A police officer walks at the site of a bombing that damaged residential buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The northwest Kyiv suburbs of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin, and Moshchun were under fire on Saturday, the Kyiv regional administration reported. The city of Slavutich, located 165 kilometers (103 miles) north of the capital was “completely isolated,” the administration said.

In the besieged port city of Mariupol, the site of some of the war’s greatest suffering, Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant, one of the biggest in Europe, said Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister.

“One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol’s defenders were already engaged in battle against “the overwhelming force of the enemy.”

“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said late Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”

The Russian military said Saturday that it had used its latest hypersonic missile for the first time in combat. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Kinzhal missiles destroyed an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers search for bodies in the debris at the military school hit by Russian rockets the day before, in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, on March 19, 2022. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Russia has said the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) and flies at 10 times the speed of sound.

A Ukrainian military official confirmed a Friday missile strike on a military warehouse in the region, but told a newspaper that authorities have not yet verified the type of missile used.

Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 humanitarian corridors for bringing aid in and residents out — one from Mariupol and several around Kyiv and in the eastern Luhansk region, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

She also announced plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the southern city of Kherson, which was seized by Russian forces.

In his nightly video address, Zelensky said Russian forces were blockading the largest cities with the goal of creating such miserable conditions that Ukrainians will surrender. But he warned that Russia would pay the ultimate price.

“The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations,” he said.

A cloud of smoke rises after an explosion in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 18, 2022. (AP Photo, File)

The two sides have held several rounds of negotiations but remain divided over Ukraine’s future status, with Russia pressing for its neighbor’s demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.

In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, Putin said Ukraine was trying to “drag the negotiations by making a series of new, unrealistic proposals,” according to the Kremlin.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday said that the West must not try to “normalize relations” with Putin after his invasion of Ukraine, calling the crisis a “turning point for the world.”

“There are some around the world… who say that we’re better off making accommodations with tyranny… I believe they are profoundly wrong,” the British leader told his Conservative Party’s Spring conference in Blackpool, northwest England.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and attendees applaud after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed them by video link during a meeting of the leaders of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a coalition of 10 states focused on security in northern Europe, at Lancaster House, in London, on March 15, 2022. (Justin Tallis/Pool/AFP)

“To try to renormalize relations with Putin after this, as we did in 2014, would be to make exactly the same mistake again, and that is why Putin must fail… This is a turning point for the world and it’s a moment of choice. It’s a choice between freedom and oppression,” he added.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Saturday that peace talks to end the conflict could be a “smokescreen” for more extreme Russian military maneuvers.

“I’m very skeptical,” Truss told The Times newspaper in an interview. “What we’ve seen is an attempt to create space for the Russians to regroup. Their invasion isn’t going according to plan… I fear the negotiation is yet another attempt to create a diversion and create a smokescreen. I don’t think we’re yet at a point for negotiation.”

Truss echoed comments by British intelligence that Putin could turn to “more and more extreme actions,” noting “appalling atrocities already.”

Ukrainian servicemen carry containers backdropped by a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

British Chief of Defense Intelligence Jim Hockenhull said on Friday that “the Kremlin has so far failed to achieve its original objectives. It has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of Ukrainian resistance and has been bedeviled with problems of its own making.

“Russia is now pursuing a strategy of attrition. This will involve the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis,” he added.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a Saturday visit to NATO ally Bulgaria, said the Russian invasion had “stalled on a number of fronts,” but the US had not yet seen signs that Putin was deploying additional forces.

Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools, and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked.

At least 130 people survived the Wednesday bombing of a Mariupol theater that was being used as a shelter, but another 1,300 were believed to be still inside, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday.

This photo released by Donetsk Regional Civil-Military Administration Council, on March 16, 2022, shows the Drama Theatre, damaged after shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Donetsk Regional Civil-Military Administration Council via AP)

“We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them,” Denisova told Ukrainian television.

Satellite images on Friday from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate. Zelensky said more than 9,000 people were able to leave in the past day along a route that leads 227 kilometers (141 miles) away to the city of Zaporizhzhia.

The governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, announced a 38-hour curfew in the southeastern city after two missile strikes on its suburbs killed nine people Friday.

The Russian forces fired at eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine’s National Police said in a statement Saturday.

The attacks with rockets and heavy artillery killed and wounded dozens of civilians, and damaged at least 37 residential buildings and facilities, including a school, a museum, and a shopping center, it said.

In a show of defiance against the Russian invasion, Kyiv residents gathered in the sunshine Friday to arrange some 1.5 million tulips in the shape of Ukraine’s coat of arms in a central square. They said the flowers would be distributed in hospitals later to cheer up patients.

“We are continuing to live our lives as we do in peaceful times,” Oleksandr Malykhin, one of the participating residents. “Children and grandchildren must be happy for the coming of spring, to breathe freely. We feel confident and we are not afraid.”

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