The Street of the Russian Embassy in Prague will be renamed the Street of Ukrainian Heroes

Russia and Ukraine appeared to be making progress in their first face-to-face talks in more than two weeks, with Moscow saying it was reducing military operations around kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, but Western allies have expressed skepticism and warned that the threat has not passed.

Delegations from both sides held talks in Istanbul on March 29 as Russia, more than a month after its unprovoked invasion, continued to face stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces, who made gains in some regions by reclaiming ground on the outskirts of the capital region.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin told reporters in Moscow that a decision had been made to “drastically reduce military activity” near kyiv and Chernihiv in order to increase mutual trust.

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For its part, Ukraine has offered not to join military alliances or host foreign troops as long as it has external security guarantees and as long as Russia does not oppose the country’s membership. to the European Union.

Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter that unconditional security guarantees for Ukraine, a ceasefire and humanitarian convoys were among the topics discussed during the “difficult negotiations for peace in our country”.

The fate of eastern regions where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014 would be set aside for discussion by Ukrainian and Russian leaders, with any peace deal requiring a referendum in Ukraine, Podolyak said.

Russian chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said the Russian delegation would study and present the proposals to President Vladimir Putin.

“We still have a long way to go” to prepare a peace agreement, Medinsky told TASS.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden expressed skepticism over Russia’s announcement that it would reduce activity around Kyiv and Chernihiv, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington was focusing on Russia’s actions, not its words.

“What Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people, and that continues as we speak,” said Blinken, who is touring the Middle East and speaking at the of a press conference in Morocco.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russia was only “repositioning” its forces near kyiv, not withdrawing them.

“That doesn’t mean the threat to kyiv is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including in Kyiv.” He said Russian airstrikes on kyiv were continuing.

“We’re not prepared to call this a retreat or even a withdrawal,” he said. “We think what they probably have in mind is a repositioning to prioritize elsewhere.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also expressed caution over Russia’s promises.

“We can say that the signals we are getting from the talks are positive, but they don’t cover Russian shell explosions,” he said in a late March 29 address. He added that Ukraine could only count on a concrete result of the talks.

The costs of the biggest attack on a European nation since World War II continue to mount, with more than 3.9 million people fleeing Ukraine and millions more internally displaced.

Thousands of people have been killed and injured, including civilians who have been unable to find places to hide as Russia appears to target non-military facilities, such as apartment buildings, hospitals and shopping centers.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy has been hit hard by Western sanctions and Ukraine, long considered the breadbasket of Europe, has seen its tractors used as much for towing Russian tanks and other vehicles shielded only for sowing fields.

The emergence of what Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the host of the talks, called “significant progress”, comes as tens of thousands of civilians in the southern port city of Mariupol continue to be trapped under repeated shelling and airstrikes by Russian forces.

Mariupol has been one of the main focal points of the fighting since the invasion began more than a month ago. The situation in the city, which had some 400,000 inhabitants before the war, has been described as “apocalyptic”.

The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine told Reuters that thousands of civilians may have died in the city since the shelling began.

“We think there could be thousands of dead, civilian casualties, in Mariupol,” Matilda Bogner said. The mission did not have a precise estimate but was working to gather more information, she added.

Mayor Vadym Boychenko said on March 28 that nearly 5,000 people, including about 210 children, had been killed in Mariupol.

In an address to the Danish parliament on March 29, Zelenskiy called Russia’s assault on the beleaguered city a “crime against humanity unfolding before the eyes of the whole planet in real time.”

Russia’s promise to scale back some of its operations comes with an overwhelming firepower advantage, failing to capture a major Ukrainian city.

British military intelligence said earlier on March 29 that Russian forces continued to pose a significant threat to kyiv with their strike capability, even as the Ukrainians continued to launch localized counterattacks northwest of the city. Ukrainian capital.

Ukraine’s fierce resistance took Russia by surprise, according to NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana, as did the consistency of the West’s response.

NATO, he said, is “more united than ever and willing and ready to support Ukraine in its just fight for freedom and sovereignty, but also to ensure that all allies, in particular those on the eastern flank, which are more exposed, are fully protected by nature.”

“I would say that after a month, Mr. Putin is way off his original campaign goals,” Geoana told Current Time in an interview.

“We hope that in the end Mr. Putin will realize in a cost-benefit analysis that he should limit the losses he has already suffered, not only militarily, but also economically, on the reputational and in terms of Russia’s global interests. So we hope that this will come through a political solution soon, as soon as possible. But we will probably see more of these very difficult times for the Ukrainian people,” he said. he added.

Chernihiv Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko said at least 350 civilians were killed by the Russian attacks, and likely many more as authorities continue to search the rubble every day for survivors.

“Russia’s objective is the destruction of the civilian population. This is the genocide of the Ukrainian people. It’s absolutely done on purpose,” he told RFE/RL.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian army said in its latest update on March 29 that Russian forces continue to launch missile strikes on residential neighborhoods across the country, focusing on targeting compartments. fuel storage in order to “complicate logistics” and “create the conditions for humanitarian aid”. crisis.”

Zelenskiy said seven people were killed and 22 injured in a missile strike on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

Regional Governor Vitaliy Kim accused Russian forces of waiting until people arrived to work in the nine-story building before hitting it and said he was lucky because he overslept .

With additional reporting by Current Time and AFP

Berta D. Wells