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LVIV, Ukraine/ANKARA: Ukraine and Russia were preparing for the first face-to-face peace talks in more than two weeks on Monday, with kyiv insisting it would make no concessions on the territorial integrity of the Ukraine as the momentum on the battlefield shifted in its favor.
Ukrainian officials have played down the chances of a major breakthrough at the talks, which are due to be held in Istanbul after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan held talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday.
But the fact that they took place in person – for the first time since an acrimonious meeting between foreign ministers on March 10 – was a sign of change behind the scenes as the Russian invasion bogged down.
The Kremlin said on Monday that talks between Moscow and Kyiv negotiators have so far failed to make any major breakthrough on the conflict in Ukraine as delegations prepare for a new round of talks in Istanbul.
“So far, we cannot report any significant achievements or breakthroughs,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that it was “important” that it was decided to continue the talks in person.
On the ground, there was no sign of respite for civilians in besieged cities, especially the devastated port of Mariupol, whose mayor said 160,000 people were still stuck inside, and he accused Russia of making it impossible their evacuation.
A senior Turkish official said the Istanbul talks would start on Monday, but the Kremlin later said they were unlikely to start until Tuesday, adding it was important they were held face-to-face despite little progress negotiations so far.
Mykhailo Podolyak, head of the Ukrainian delegation, told Reuters the departure time depended on when delegations could arrive.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly hinted in recent weeks that they believe Russia may now be more willing to compromise, as any hope Moscow may have had of imposing a new government on Kyiv has faded in the face of to fierce Ukrainian resistance and heavy Russian casualties.
The Russian military signaled last week that it was focusing on expanding separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine, a month after committing the bulk of its huge invasion force to a failed assault on kyiv.
When the sides last met in person, Ukraine accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of ignoring its calls to discuss a ceasefire, while Lavrov said a stopping the fighting was not even on the agenda.
Since then, they have met several times via video link, rather than face to face. The two sides have publicly discussed progress on a diplomatic formula under which Ukraine could agree to some sort of formal neutral status. But neither has budged on Russia’s territorial claims, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and eastern territories known as Donbass, which Moscow demands kyiv cede to separatists.
“I don’t think there will be a breakthrough on the main issues,” Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said Monday.
In an interview with Russian journalists over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to some form of “compromise” involving the Donbass, although he did not hint that this might involve ceding territory. In his final overnight comments, he made it clear that “territorial integrity” remained Kyiv’s priority in the talks.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. kyiv and the West see this as a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
From the outset, Western countries said they believed Russia’s real goal was to quickly overthrow the government in kyiv, which Moscow failed to meet in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance, later leading to huge Russian losses.
Last week, Ukrainian forces went on the offensive, pushing back Russian troops in areas around kyiv, the northeast and southwest. Russia meanwhile has kept up pressure in the southeast near breakaway areas, including its devastating siege of Mariupol port, razed to the ground with tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside for weeks.
The city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, who escaped the city and spoke from an undisclosed location, said 160,000 civilians were still trapped there, without heat or electricity. Twenty-six buses were waiting to evacuate them but the Russian forces had not agreed to give them safe passage.
“The situation in the city remains difficult. People are beyond the line of humanitarian catastrophe,” Boichenko told state television. “We must completely evacuate Mariupol.”
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said there were no plans to open corridors to evacuate civilians from besieged towns on Monday, due to intelligence reports of possible Russian ‘provocations’ along the roads .
Elsewhere, Russia’s armored columns are bogged down, struggling to resupply, and making little or no progress, despite shelling residential areas.
“As of today, the enemy is regrouping its forces, but they cannot advance anywhere in Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Monday.
The UK MoD also said there had been no major changes in Russia’s positions in the past 24 hours, with most Russian gains near Mariupol and heavy fighting ongoing there. -low.
The Ukrainian General Staff said the Kyiv Defense Forces were holding back Russian troops trying to break through from the northeast and northwest and take control of key roads and settlements. In the south, Ukrainian forces concentrated on defending the towns of Krivy Rih, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolayiv.