U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that he would make "no apologies" after his recent comment that Russian President Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power," stressing he was "expressing moral outrage" and not actually calling for regime change in Moscow.
"People like this shouldn't be ruling countries, but they do. The fact they do doesn't mean I can't express my outrage about it," Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday.
"I wasn't articulating a policy change," he said.
The president's unscripted remark about Putin, while speaking with Ukrainian refugees and international volunteers in Poland on Saturday, stirred controversy in the United States and caught some allies in Western Europe by surprise.
"The last thing I want to do is engage in a land war or a nuclear war with Russia," Biden said, while rejecting the idea that his comment could escalate tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russian troops have stopped ground advances toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as they appear refocused on regions in eastern Ukraine, according to senior official from the U.S. Department of Defense.
"They clearly are not moving on Kyiv anymore," said the official, who briefed reporters on background Monday. "What we are seeing is this continued reprioritization on the Donbas."
Moscow's latest military shift appears to be an effort to cut off Ukrainian forces in the eastern region, according to the official, adding that the move "could be an attempt by the Russians to gain negotiating leverage" in peace talks with Ukrainian representatives trying to end the war.
Britain's Defense Ministry said Monday that a private Russian mercenary company, the Wagner Group, has been deployed to eastern Ukraine.
"They are expected to deploy more than 1,000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the organization, to undertake combat operations," the ministry said. It added that the troops were being pulled from Syria and Africa.
The top commander of U.S. military forces in Africa, General Stephen Townsend, told VOA earlier this month that the Wagner Group was trying to recruit its mercenaries in Africa to fight in Ukraine.
Russia has been backing separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since at least 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian forces have stopped Russian troops from taking most major cities.
Nearly 5,000 people, including more than 200 children, have been killed in the southern city of Mariupol, which Russia has heavily bombarded since the invasion started last month, according to the mayor's office.
Mariupol's mayor on Monday called for evacuation of the remaining 160,000 residents. Ukraine's deputy prime minister, however, said no humanitarian corridors would open, because of intelligence reports of potential Russian assaults on the routes.
"We've seen the Russians announce humanitarian corridors and then promptly shell them, or mortar them, or strike them," the senior U.S. Defense official said Monday in response to a question from VOA, without speaking to Ukraine's recent assertions.
Near Kyiv, the large suburb of Irpin has been liberated from Russian forces, according to Mayor Alexander Markushin.
"We understand that our city will be attacked more. We will protect it," he said.
Last week, the deputy chief of the Russian armed forces' general staff said Russia's "main tasks" of the invasion of Ukraine were complete.
"The combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces have been substantially reduced, which allows us to concentrate our main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas," Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi said.
Last week, however, a senior U.S. Defense official said Ukrainians still have more than 90% of their combat power, in part because the U.S. and other allies have replenished them "in real time."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" are a priority as Ukraine and Russia head into a new round of peace talks.
"We are looking for peace, really, without delay," Zelenskyy said in a video address late Sunday. "There is an opportunity and a need for a face-to-face meeting in Turkey. This is not bad. Let's see the outcome."
Earlier Sunday, in a call with Russian journalists, Zelenskyy said Ukraine was open to adopting neutral status as part of a peace deal if it came with third-party guarantees and was put to a referendum.
Turkey is set to host the latest talks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that he would meet briefly with both the Russian and Ukrainian delegations ahead of the talks on Tuesday.
Speaking about the peace talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on national television Monday that "the minimum program will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum program is reaching an agreement on a cease-fire."
"We are not trading people, land or sovereignty," he added.
The United Nations says the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed 10 million people out of their homes, and more than 3.8 million have fled the country.
In response to the invasion, the NATO alliance has increased defenses on its eastern flank, announcing four new battlegroups to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia last week. Individual NATO members have also unilaterally sent troops and equipment to allied countries including Poland and the Baltic states, which neighbor Russia and have hosted NATO battlegroups since 2017.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced that six U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft and about 250 air crew would arrive in Germany on Monday to bolster NATO's defenses.
"These Growlers … specialize in conducting electronic warfare missions, using a suite of jamming sensors to confuse enemy radars," Kirby told reporters.
"They are there to reinforce deterrence capabilities of the alliance on the eastern flank. They're not there to engage Russian assets. That is not the goal," the senior U.S. Defense official added.
National security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.