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Russia says it has ‘drastically’ reduced military activity near Kyiv; Biden, Pentagon skeptical: Live Ukraine updates – USA TODAY

The Russian military said Tuesday that it had “drastically” reduced its activity near the Ukraine capital of Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv as talks with Ukraine aimed at ending the war entered the “practical” stage.

Russia and Ukraine held face-to-face talks Tuesday in Turkey as the United Nations pressed for a cease-fire in Russia’s brutal invasion. The talks took place in the Turkish presidential office in Istanbul and lasted more than three hours, Russia’s Tass agency reported.

Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy minister of defense, said the military cutbacks were made to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

President Joe Biden, who had a call with European leaders Tuesday morning to discuss aiding Ukraine and pressuring Russia to end the war, was asked about the Russian claim of a military cutback near Kyiv.

“We’ll see,” he said.

The Pentagon sounded even more skeptical, as press secretary John Kirby said the pullout of troops was small and they may be reassigned.

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

Ukraine’s military said it had detected withdrawals around the cities, and U.S. Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command, said that is “exactly what we see.” The Russian advance on Kyiv had stalled in recent weeks, but missile strikes have battered the city and left shortages of food, water and other necessities for a population of almost 3 million people.

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The head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arahamiya, said his side presented an official proposal for a new system of security guarantees. The proposed security pledge will not apply to the parts of Ukraine whose status remains in dispute – Crimea, which Russia considers its territory after annexing it in 2014, and the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk areas.

“We insist that it be an international treaty signed by all security guarantors who ratify,” Arahamiya said. “We want it to be an international mechanism of concrete security guarantees for Ukraine.”

Lead Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said Ukraine pledged not to join any military alliance and not to host foreign military bases or foreign troops. Even military exercises would require prior approval from guarantors, according to the proposal.

Kyiv also pledged not to seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, Medinsky said. In return, Ukraine requires that Russia will not object to Ukraine joining the EU one day.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and was open to working out a compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas over the next 15 years.

Latest developments

►The White House denied “disinformation” claims by Russia that the U.S. government is launching cyber operations against Moscow that include the theft of personal data and the spreading of false information about the Russian military.

►The Pentagon is sending a 200-person Marine Corps command-and-control unit to Lithuania, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday. The unit had been participating in a training mission in Norway. The Pentagon has been sending troops and equipment to shore up NATO’s eastern flank following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

►Information technology companies are focused on providing reliable information and stymying Russian propaganda about the invasion, said Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who was in  Warsaw for a meeting with Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

►Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across Ukraine in just over a month of war. Most of the damage is concentrated near Kyiv and in the east, Ukraine’s military said Tuesday.

►Seven people were killed when a Russian missile slammed into a nine-story government building in Mykolayiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday. He said 22 people were wounded.

THE DEVASTATION OF MARIUPOL: Satellite images, photos and maps show the extent of the devastation and loss

‘We’ll see’: Biden not ready to believe Russia’s military reduction

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he will wait until Russia follows through on its stated plans to scale back its military presence near the Ukraine capital of Kyiv before judging the significance of the move.

“We’ll see,” Biden told reporters when asked for his view on Russia’s announcement. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are. We’ll see if they follow through on what they’re suggesting.”

Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy minister of defense, said Russia has “drastically” reduced its military activity near Kyiv and Chernigov amid talks with Ukraine on a peace deal. He said the military cutbacks were made to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

Biden referenced the negotiations as he discussed a Tuesday morning phone call he had with United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

In the nearly one-hour call, they talked about continuing to provide military aid to Ukraine and making Russia pay a high price for ruthlessly attacking its neighbor, the White House said.

“There seems to be a consensus that let’s just see what they have to offer,” Biden said of his conversation with the European leaders. “We’ll find out what they do. But in the meantime, we’re going to continue to keep (strengthening) the sanctions. We’re going to continue to provide the Ukrainian military with their capacity to defend themselves. And we’re going to continue to keep a close eye on what’s going on.”

Biden was responding to a question from a reporter from the East Room of the White House while appearing alongside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore after they held a bilateral meeting.

It was the lone question Biden took from the media, but White House communications director Kate Bedingfield expanded on the notion that the administration is not buying Russia’s claims.

“We should be clear-eyed about the reality of what’s happening on the ground,” she said, adding that “no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcements.

“We believe any movement of forces from around Kyiv is a redeployment and not a withdrawal, and the world should be prepared for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine. Everyone should expect that we’re going to continue to see attacks across Ukraine.”

— Joey Garrison

Pentagon on Russia’s withdrawal announcement: ‘We’re not taking anything they say at face value’

The Pentagon reacted with skepticism Tuesday to Russia’s claims that it has withdrawn forces near Kyiv.

While small numbers of Russian troops have moved back from positions around the Ukrainian capital, the Pentagon believes it is repositioning, not a real withdrawal, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

“It’s not anywhere near a majority of what they have arrayed against Kyiv,” Kirby said.

The Russians still have a significant majority of their combat power near Kyiv, Kirby said. President Vladimir Putin massed more than 150,000 troops for the invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces have retaken territory from the Russians west of Kyiv, Kirby said. To the east of Kyiv, the Ukrainians have pushed back Russian forces to more than 30 miles from the city.

It’s too early to judge what Russia will do next, Kirby said, but its aims have been clear.

“Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv,” Kirby said. “It’s failed in its objective of subjugating Ukraine.”

The Pentagon’s assessment that Russia is repositioning its forces is based in part on the shift of their military focus on eastern Ukraine, Kirby said.

“We’re not taking anything they say at face value,” Kirby said.

— Tom Vanden Brook

Chechnya leader says his fighters could take Kyiv

The leader of Russia’s Chechnya province wants to storm Kyiv. Ramzan Kadyrov, speaking to about 10,000 troops in Chechnya’s regional capital of Grozny, said that “we need to complete what we have started,” a reference to the Kremlin announcing it was backing off its assault on Kyiv to allow for negotiations.

Kadyrov has posted numerous videos in recent days that appear to feature him and Chechen fighters on the outskirts of Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. Kadyrov said Moscow should have allowed his fighters to press the offensive.

“I’m more than confident that we would have entered Kyiv and established order there,” he said.

Kremlin: US-Russia dialogue crucial despite Biden ‘insults’

President Joe Biden’s blunt criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin have a negative impact on relations but dialogue between Moscow and Washington is in the interests of the whole world, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. 

“Insults cannot but leave their mark on relations between heads of state,” Peskov said. “Especially personal insults, which in general should have no place in the rhetoric of the head of state.”

Biden in recent days has referred to Putin as a “war criminal” and on Saturday said Putin “cannot remain in power.” The White House later clarified that Biden was not calling for regime change in Russia. 

“One way or another, sooner or later we will have to talk about the issues of strategic stability, security and so on, in other words, those issues that only we can and should discuss,” Peskov said.

Europe sends dozens of Russian diplomats home

At least four European allies expelled dozens of Russian diplomats Tuesday as relations between Russia and the West continue their plunge since the invasion. The Netherlands said it was expelling 17 Russians who it described as intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats. Belgium said it was ejecting 21 Russians, the Czech Republic one. Ireland told four senior Russian officials to leave the country because of activities deemed not “in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behavior.” All this after Poland expelled 45 Russians last week.

“Together with our allies, we are reducing the Russian intelligence presence in the EU,” the Czech Foreign Ministry said.

US troop presence in Europe almost doubles, to 100,000

U.S. troop presence in Europe has swelled from 60,000 to about 100,000 as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, told the Senate Armed Services committee on Tuesday.

“Russia’s premeditated and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has galvanized our allies and global partners,” he told the committee. “NATO’s capabilities in space and cyberspace are more closely integrated than in any other time in the Alliance’s history.”

Wolters said the U.S. is supplying Ukraine with military requirements “to ensure they’re getting the right equipment at the right time … so they can best protect their forces.”

Asked why Russia would have used hypersonic weapons in Ukraine, Wolters said it was likely done “to put fear in the hearts of the enemy, and I don’t think they were successful.” He said most of those strikes were aimed at military targets.

Katie Wadington

Russia: Putin, Zelenskyy could meet before final deal struck

Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said the first day of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia was “constructive.” He said a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could take place as soon as the parameters of a peace deal were in place. Zelenskyy has been pressing for a meeting with Putin for weeks, but Russian negotiators had insisted the deal must first be completed.

Ukraine’s defensive strategy could add to peril facing civilians

Ukraine’s defense against Russian attacks could be increasing the risk to civilians in the war-torn nation, experts tell The Washington Post. Most neighborhoods in Ukraine’s cities have become “militarized,” making them potential targets for Russian forces, the Post says. Russia has been pounding some cities, and Ukrainians have responded by deploying air defense systems, heavy weaponry, soldiers and volunteers to residential areas. All are rich targets for Russian missiles.

“I am very reluctant to suggest that Ukraine is responsible for civilian casualties because Ukraine is fighting to defend its country from an aggressor,” William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London, told the Post. “But to the extent that Ukraine brings the battlefield to the civilian neighborhoods, it increases the danger to civilians.”

Ukraine takes back towns

Ukrainian forces were continuing their efforts to reclaim territory swept up in the Russian offensive. The Ukraine military retook Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, from Russian troops, who were regrouping to take the area back, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday as he sought to rally the country. Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation.

“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “We can’t express our emotions now. We can’t raise expectations, simply so that we don’t burn out.”

The Ukrainian government said it was operating three humanitarian corridors Tuesday to move civilians out of the besieged port of Mariupol and two Russian-occupied cities in the south.

Relatives hug at the funeral of Ukrainian soldier Teodor Osadchyi at Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 29, 2022.

Cyberattack hits Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider

A “massive” cyberattack knocked Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom almost completely offline Monday morning, and outages persisted into the evening. Network monitors said it was the most severe outage since Russia invaded Ukraine over a month ago. Most Ukrainian customers were cut off from service so Ukraine’s military could continue using it, the chair of Ukraine’s state service for special communication, Yurii Shchyhol, said.

Shchyhol blamed “the enemy” for the cyberattack, refraining from specifically naming Russia. 

– Celina Tebor

Many in Middle East see hypocrisy in Western embrace of Ukraine

Within days of the Russian invasion, Western countries invoked international law, imposed crippling sanctions, began welcoming refugees with open arms and cheered on Ukraine’s armed resistance. The response has elicited outrage across the Middle East, where many see a glaring double standard in how the West responds to international conflicts.

“We have seen every means we were told could not be activated for over 70 years deployed in less than seven days,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told a security forum in Turkey earlier this month.

“Amazing hypocrisy,” he said.

The Biden administration said Wednesday that the United States has assessed that Russian forces committed war crimes in Ukraine and would work with others to prosecute offenders. But the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court and staunchly opposes any international probe of its own conduct or of its ally, Israel.

Contributing: The Associated Press