Russia has violated its pledge to scale back military operations on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday, as little progress was reported in the latest round of peace talks between the two countries.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that Russia had repositioned a small number of troops around Kyiv in the last 24 hours, but added, “None of them have repositioned to their home garrison.”
“They're leaving Kyiv [and] heading more to the north … away from the city,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said, adding that the majority of Russian forces were still around Kyiv as airstrikes continued.
Russia said Wednesday that there was no sign of a breakthrough in peace talks with Ukraine.
The apparent impasse comes as U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
"The leaders discussed how the United States is working around the clock to fulfill the main security assistance requests by Ukraine, the critical effects those weapons have had on the conflict, and continued efforts by the United States with allies and partners to identify additional capabilities to help the Ukrainian military defend its country," the White House said in a statement.
"President Biden informed President Zelenskyy that the United States intends to provide the Ukrainian government with $500 million in direct budgetary aid," the White House added, noting the Ukrainian leader updated Biden on the status of negotiations.
In a video address Wednesday, Zelenskyy said, “I've thanked the U.S. for the new package of humanitarian aid worth 1 billion U.S. dollars and an additional 500 million dollars in direct budgetary aid. I've also underlined that now is the turning point.”
He also reiterated concerns that Russia was massing troops for new attacks in Donbas.
“We don't believe anyone, and in any flowery words. There is a real situation on the battlefield,” Zelenskyy said.
Newly declassified U.S. intelligence suggested the more than monthlong invasion of Ukraine was causing rifts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his senior military advisers.
“There is now persistent tension between Putin and the MOD [Ministry of Defense],” a U.S. official confirmed to VOA on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the information.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield expanded on that to reporters Wednesday.
“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,” Bedingfield said. “So, it is increasingly clear that Putin's war has been a strategic blunder that has left Russia weaker over the long term, and increasingly isolated on the world stage.”
British military intelligence Wednesday provided further indications of Russia's military struggles.
"Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and resupply," theBritish defense attache, Air Vice Marshal Mick Smeath, said, warning Moscow's forces would try to compensate with more artillery and missile strikes.
Russia appeared to signal Wednesday that it was welcoming talks aimed at ending the 36-day-old war.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a press briefing that Moscow welcomed the fact that Kyiv had presented a written statement of demands at the start of negotiations in Istanbul, Turkey.
But Peskov also said Russia had not seen anything promising that would lead to a final agreement.
An aide to Zelenskyy said the two sides discussed the terms of a possible cease-fire, along with international security guarantees for Ukraine during Tuesday's session.
Ukrainian negotiators also proposed that Kyiv would adopt a neutral status and commit to not joining NATO or other military alliances in exchange for security guarantees from Western countries.
Continued Russian attacks
Meanwhile, local officials in Ukraine said Russian forces had continued artillery attacks on the outskirts of Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, despite a vow to reduce operations in those locations as a sign of goodwill.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN, Chernihiv Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko said Russia's attacks had escalated over the past 24 hours.
"This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies," Atroshenko said. "They actually have increased the intensity of strikes," with "a colossal mortar attack in the center of Chernihiv" that wounded 25 civilians.
Russia did not immediately comment on the reports and accusations that it had violated its commitment to reduce operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv.
Russian forces also damaged a Red Cross warehouse in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, the Ukrainian government and the International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday. The aid group said it did not immediately know the extent of the damage or if there were any casualties. Mariupol is a strategic city where officials have warned of a humanitarian disaster.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk earlier Wednesday announced the two sides had agreed to open three evacuation corridors. Vereshchuk said one corridor would be used for the evacuation of Mariupol and delivery of humanitarian aid to Berdyansk, about 85 kilometers southwest of Mariupol.
Another corridor would allow humanitarian aid deliveries to the city of Melitopol, as well as evacuations from the city, while a third would open for people traveling from Enerhodar to Zaporizhzhia, both in southern Ukraine.
Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said Wednesday that the number of Ukrainians who had fled to escape what he called a "senseless war" had now exceeded 4 million people.
"Many in this region are feeling the pain of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in another way, with rising food prices, especially wheat. Farmers in Ukraine, instead of tending to their crops, are forced to fight for their country's future for independence or to flee," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Algiers on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department issued a new advisory Tuesday urging U.S. citizens either traveling to or residing in Russia to leave the country immediately.
The State Department designated Russia a "Level 4: Do Not Travel" nation on its travel advisory list shortly after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb, United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer and White House Correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.