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Biden: West Waiting to See Whether Russia De-Escalates Attacks in Ukraine

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Ukrainian servicemen stand in trenches at a position north of the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 29, 2022.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Western allied nations are waiting to see whether Russia will fulfill a commitment to de-escalate attacks around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.

"We'll see if they follow through," Biden said after speaking by telephone with leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Italy. "There seems to be a consensus that let's just see what they have to offer."

Biden's comments to reporters at the White House came after Russia's military said earlier Tuesday at the latest round of peace talks in Turkey that it would cut back operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the move was meant to "increase trust" in the talks aimed at ending the fighting.

The Pentagon confirmed that "a small number" of Russian forces had begun to move away from Kyiv but offered even more skepticism than the president.

"We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

"We're not convinced that the threat to the capital city has been radically diminished here by this proclamation by the Russian Ministry of Defense," he added.

Advances by Russian forces have stalled in the face of fierce opposition by Ukrainian fighters.

Journalists work outside the Dolmabahçe Palace ahead of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations, in Istanbul, March 29, 2022.
Journalists work outside the Dolmabahçe Palace ahead of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations, in Istanbul, March 29, 2022.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said Russian troops will focus on Donbas, which includes the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine's east. He said Moscow had largely accomplished the first stage of its "special military operation," including degrading Ukraine's military capacity.

The Pentagon press secretary pointed out that the Russian troops were increasing their focus and activity in the east after being "stalled out" in the military campaign in the north and south.

"No amount of spin can mask what the world has witnessed over the past month, and that's the courage and the military prowess of Ukraine's armed forces and its people, which are proving to be more than what Russia bargained for in its unprovoked and unjustified invasion," he said.

A senior U.S. Department of Defense official told reporters that Ukrainian troops have retaken the town of Trostyanets, near the northeastern city of Sumy, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his Monday night speech that Ukrainian troops have liberated Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.

In Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Ukrainian and Russian negotiators before the start of talks that it was up to both sides to reach a concrete agreement and "stop this tragedy."

An aide to Zelenskyy said that during Tuesday's talks the two sides discussed the terms of a possible cease-fire plus international security guarantees for Ukraine.

At a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said Russia may be ready to take steps forward, but there is still a long way to go to a sustainable cease-fire and comprehensive de-escalation.

"Signing of the treaty on the security guarantees for Ukraine will only be possible after the withdrawal of all Russian armed units," he said.

Kyslytsya also urged states to continue to keep the pressure on Moscow through new sanctions and to keep assisting Kyiv with weapons.

The negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday.

Taking part in the talks was Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who suffered symptoms consistent with poisoning after participating in peace talks earlier this month. At least two senior members of the negotiating Ukrainian team suffered similar symptoms.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Abramovich attended Tuesday's talks on an informal basis. Peskov dismissed reports that Abramovich and the other two negotiators may have been poisoned, saying that was a part of an "information war" launched by Western nations.

Just as the latest talks were getting underway in Istanbul, a Russian airstrike blasted a gaping hole in a government building in the Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv, leaving at least eight people trapped in the rubble.

Russia has used various weapons in its war on Ukraine, including hypersonic missiles, according to the top U.S. military commander in Europe.

U.S. General Tod Wolters, head of European Command and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that most of Russia's hypersonic missile strikes were against "specific military targets."

Russia announced earlier this month that it used hypersonic missiles to destroy a large weapons depot in Ukraine's western Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Local residents pass by a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostyanets, east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022.
Local residents pass by a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostyanets, east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022.

Also Tuesday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced in a video message posted on the social media site Telegram that humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war-scarred regions had reopened after a one-day pause over what Kyiv called possible Russian "provocations."

The United Nations said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed at least 10 million people out of their homes and that more than 3.8 million have fled the country.

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."

During an interview 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.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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