Russia and Ukraine will resume talks online on April 1 - Ukrainian negotiator

Possible peace deal to be put to national referendum • Russia moving forces around Kyiv

 A view shows a railway bridge over the Irpin river destroyed by heavy shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the town of Irpin, in Kyiv region, Ukraine March 29, 2022.  (photo credit: REUTERS/SERHII MYHALCHUK)
A view shows a railway bridge over the Irpin river destroyed by heavy shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the town of Irpin, in Kyiv region, Ukraine March 29, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SERHII MYHALCHUK)

Russia and Ukraine will resume their peace talks online on April 1, a senior Ukrainian official said on Wednesday after the latest round of negotiations had ended in Turkey.

Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said in an online post that Ukraine had proposed the countries' two leaders should meet, but Russia responded by saying more work needed to be done on a draft treaty.

A possible peace deal between Ukraine and Russia will be put to a national referendum in Ukraine, as soon as Russian troops withdraw to their positions from before the invasion, Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said Wednesday.

His remarks come following negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey.

Podolyak said he was optimistic after the talks in Istanbul, as did presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, who claimed Ukraine had improved its negotiating position since before the start of the invasion on February 24.

According to Arestovych, Ukraine is pushing to secure neutral status but with external security guarantees.

According to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, three humanitarian corridors from the Zaporizhia region were negotiated.

A view shows an apartment building destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)A view shows an apartment building destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

"Three humanitarian corridors have been agreed: for evacuation of Mariupol residents and delivery of humanitarian aid to Berdyansk, delivery of humanitarian aid and evacuation of people from Melitopol, as well as for a convoy of people on their own transport from Energodar to Zaporizhzhia," she said. "Yesterday, during the talks, the Russian delegation received proposals on the organization of humanitarian corridors to the 97 most-affected settlements in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Chernihiv, Sumy, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, Luhansk and Mykolaiv regions. Today we will continue to work to get answers to these proposals."

It is currently unclear when an official meeting betweek Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will happen, Podoloyak said noting that Russia must respond to Ukraine's proposal and figure out the logistics, according to Ukrainian state news outlet Ukrinform.

While Ukraine seems optimistic, Russia seems to differ, with presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov saying there is still a lot of work to be done.

"The positive thing is that the Ukrainian side, at least, has begun to formulate concretely and put down what it proposes on paper," Peskov said, according to Russian news agency TASS. "As for the rest, so far, let's say, we cannot state anything very promising."

According to Russia's negotiator Vladimir Medinsky, Ukraine expressed willingness to meet Russia's core demands, adding that Moscow's stance on Crimea and Donbas remains unchanged, despite Ukraine's demands for territorial integrity being a major sticking point.

Indeed, a peace deal that sees Ukraine lose territory or sovereignty might not cause Western sanctions against Russia to end, according to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

"A peace agreement at gunpoint, with the loss of Ukrainian territory and sovereignty, is not the way to get back to normal. Nor will it automatically lead to easing our sanctions," Rutte said during a visit to Spain.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's proposals at the Istanbul negotiations was, in essence, an agreement with Russia's stance on Crimea and Donbas, saying "I consider it progress for Ukraine to understand that the issues of Crimea and Donbas have finally been resolved," Pravda reported.

However, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry evidently disagrees and said Lavrov misunderstood.

"The issues of Crimea and Donbas will finally be resolved after the restoration of Ukraine's sovereignty over them," Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko said, adding that the proposals outlined how to do exactly that, according to Pravda.

Medinsky also said Ukraine had agreed not to conduct military exercises with foreign armies except by agreement with state guarantors including Russia.

"Ukraine has declared its readiness to fulfill those fundamental requirements that Russia has been insisting on over the past years. If these obligations are met, then the threat of creating a NATO bridgehead on Ukrainian territory will be eliminated," Medinsky said.

"This is the essence, meaning and importance of the document preliminarily agreed upon at a... high level by Ukraine. However, work continues, negotiations continue."

However, Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful head of Russia's republic of Chechnya, said on Wednesday that Moscow would make no concessions in its war in Ukraine, deviating from the official line and suggesting the Kremlin's own negotiator was wrong.

Kadyrov, who has Chechen forces fighting in Ukraine as part of Russia's military operation, said in comments on Telegram that President Vladimir Putin would not simply stop what he had started there.

"We will not make any concessions, it was .. Medinsky who made a mistake, made an incorrect wording... And if you think that he (Putin) will quit what he started just the way it is presented to us today, this is not true," Kadyrov said.

Russian encirclement plans

Russia is moving forces from northern to eastern Ukraine to try to encircle Ukrainian troops but is keeping some behind near the capital Kyiv to tie down part of the Ukrainian military there, Arestovych said on Wednesday.

Russia is moving forces from northern to eastern Ukraine to try to encircle Ukrainian troops, but is keeping some behind near the capital Kyiv to tie down part of the Ukrainian military there, a presidential adviser said on Wednesday.

Officials and notable Russian figures noted that the movement of Russian troops did not indicate the end of the war, and others urged the taking of Kyiv. 

Medinsky said that the gradual de-escalation from Kyiv did not mean a ceasefire, TASS reported. 

"When we saw such step, we also formulated two major reciprocal steps. The first one involves a gradual military de-escalation on two directions - Kyiv and Chernihiv ones," said Medinsky. "This is not a ceasefire, but it is our intent to gradually come to a de-escalation of the conflict at least on these directions."

 A view shows an armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict on a road leading to the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 28, 2022. (credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters) A view shows an armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict on a road leading to the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 28, 2022. (credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

"I state that we must complete what we’ve started, that we must not stop. We must enter Kyiv, and take Kyiv. If we were stopped near Kyiv, I am more than sure that we would have entered Kyiv and established order there," Putin's Chechenya ally Ramzan Kadyrov said on Tuesday, according to TASS.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine assessed on Wednesday that the Russian military would be regrouping and focusing on operations in the east of Ukraine. New troops and replacement equipment is being sent from other military bases outside of Ukraine.

Despite Russia's claims of a decrease in military activity near Kyiv and Chernihiv, this has yet to actually happen, Podolyak said, adding that while some units have been withdrawn, it isn't a mass withdrawal and could be a troop transfer, according to Ukrinform.

Further, according to the Ukrainian military and the Kyiv Independent, Russia is also amassing troops in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Russian forces in Ukraine are regrouping and preparing for renewed offensive operations, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on Wednesday.

"(Russia's) main efforts are concentrated on surrounding Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine," Motuzyanyk said, adding that Russia was still trying to take the southern port city of Mariupol and the towns of Popasna and Rubizhne.

"It (Russia) is preparing to resume offensive operations," he said, adding that Ukraine's armed forces command had observed some movements of Russian forces away from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions but did not consider this to be a mass withdrawal.

According to the Pentagon, Russia has started to reposition under 20% of the forces arrayed around Ukraine's capital Kyiv. However, the Pentagon cautioned that Russia was expected to refit and resupply them for redeployment, and not bring the forces home.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said some of the Russian forces may have already moved into Belarus, as opposed to their home garrisons.

Kirby also told a news briefing Russian contractor Wagner Group had deployed about 1,000 contractors into Ukraine's Donbas region, which Moscow has declared a priority.

Russian and Ukrainian forces are fighting in the streets of the eastern Ukrainian town of Popasne, the regional governor said on Wednesday.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces were trying to advance in the region.

"We expect an escalation (from Russia). They will try to reach the boundaries of the Luhansk region," Haidai said.

Ukraine is also receiving new shipments of equipment. Norway has donated more weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself against Russia's invasion, the Norwegian defense ministry said on Wednesday.

The latest shipment, which has already been completed, is 2,000 M72 anti-tank weapons, raising the total number of M72s donated by Norway to 4,000, the ministry said.

LAWs can destroy or incapacitate many armored vehicles, but cannot penetrate the armor of MBTs and APCs of the same caliber.  They are also effective at destroying fortifications and defensive cover. Unlike the Javelin, they have an effective firing range of only a few hundred meters.

Combat continued in the Donetsk battlefront, with main efforts focused on taking control of the cities Popasna, Rubizhne and Mariupol, said the Ukrainian military.

Russian forces are using phosphorus ammunition and shelling settlements on the front line separating Ukrainian-controlled territory from areas held by Russian-backed forces in the eastern Donetsk region, the local governor said on Wednesday.

Speaking on national television, Pavlo Kyrylenko also said that the latest attempt to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol had likely failed as convoys of civilians were not being allowed through. Ukraine and Russia have traded blame in the past when evacuation attempts broke down.

Russia has continued artillery and airstrikes of besieged cities such as Kharkiv, according to the Ukrainian armed forces. 

Casualties

The Ukrainian military claimed on Wednesday morning that Russia had lost 17,300 soldiers since the beginning of the war, though Western intelligence services estimate less than half of that. 

The armed forces of Ukraine also claimed to have destroyed 605 tanks, 1723 armored vehicles, 305 artillery pieces, 96 multiple launch rocket systems, 131 aircraft, 131 helicopters, 1184 other ground vehicles, seven ships, 75 fuel tanks and 81 drones.

Putin was misled by his advisers about how poorly the war in Ukraine is going and how damaging Westerns sanctions have been to Russia's economy, a US official said on Wednesday, citing declassified intelligence.

"We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth," the official said on condition of anonymity.

“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military, which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership,” Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, told reporters during a press briefing.

“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth,” she said.

The US was putting forward this information now to show “this has been a strategic error for Russia,” she said.

One senior European diplomat said the US assessment was in line with European thinking. "Putin thought things were going better than they were. That's the problem with surrounding yourself with 'yes men' or only sitting with them at the end of a very long table," the diplomat said.

Russian conscripts were told they were taking part in military exercises, but had to sign a document before the invasion that extended their duties, two European diplomats said.

"They were misled, badly trained and then arrived to find old Ukrainian women who looked like their grandmothers yelling at them to go home," one of the diplomats added.

There were no indications at the moment that the situation could foster a revolt among the Russian military, but the situation was "unpredictable" and Western powers "would hope that unhappy people would speak up," the senior European diplomat said.

Russian war crimes

Ukrainian cities have been pounded by airstrikes and heavy shelling in Russia's five-week-old invasion, killing civilians and destroying hospitals in acts that may amount to war crimes, the top United Nations human rights official said on Wednesday.

Michelle Bachelet, addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, called on Russia to withdraw its troops.

She also said her office had received "credible allegations" that Russian forces had used cluster munitions in populated areas of Ukraine at least 24 times and said her office was investigating alleged use of cluster munitions by Ukraine.

"Homes and administrative buildings, hospitals and schools, water stations and electricity systems have not been spared," she said.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a "special operation" to disarm and "denazify" its neighbor.

Bachelet said that her office, which deploys nearly 60 UN human rights monitors in Ukraine, had verified 77 incidents in which medical facilities were damaged, including 50 hospitals.

"Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes," she said.

"The massive destruction of civilian objects and the high number of civilian casualties strongly indicate that the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution have not been sufficiently adhered to," Bachelet said, referring to the rules of war embodied in the Geneva Conventions.

The people of Ukraine have been enduring a "living nightmare," she said, adding: "In the besieged city of Mariupol, people are living in sheer terror."

Matilda Bogner, head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine, told Reuters in Geneva on Tuesday that thousands of people may have died during the month-long siege of Mariupol, a southern port city of 400,000 people laid to waste.