KYIV (AFP, REUTERS) - The fourth round of talks between Ukraine and Russia on Monday (March 14) will focus on achieving a ceasefire, troop withdrawals and security guarantees for Ukraine, said one of the Ukrainian negotiators, Mr Mykhailo Podolyak.
Ukraine’s position remained unchanged in insisting on a ceasefire before talks on future relations could happen, he said in a social media post and accompanying video.
“Negotiations. 4th round. On peace, ceasefire, immediate withdrawal of troops & security guarantees. Hard discussion,” he wrote, adding that he believed Russia “still has a delusion that 19 days of violence against (Ukrainian) peaceful cities is the right strategy”.
Russia denies targeting civilians. The Kremlin describes its actions as a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of choice.
The talks on the war in Ukraine come as Moscow's invading forces maintain their assaults across the former Soviet state.
Russian troops are edging closer to Kyiv and keeping up their relentless bombardment of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, where nearly 2,200 people have been killed in the onslaught, according to local officials.
Ukrainian and Russian representatives will meet via videoconference on Monday, a Ukrainian presidential adviser and a Kremlin spokesman both said.
The talks will start at 10.30am Kyiv time (4.30pm Singapore time), Mr Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Monday morning.
Although officials have been giving upbeat assessments lately, positive results of the negotiations are yet to come.
Ukraine has repeatedly called for direct talks between President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, pointing to the Russian leader as the one making all the final decisions.
"Our delegation has a clear task - to do everything to ensure a meeting of the presidents; the meeting that I am sure people are waiting for," Mr Zelensky said in his daily video address on Sunday.
"Obviously, this is a difficult story, a hard path, but this path is needed. And our goal is for Ukraine to get the necessary result in this struggle, in this negotiation work. Necessary for peace and for security."
Russia has said previously that the Kremlin would not refuse such a meeting to discuss "specific" issues, but there have been no further details.
On Sunday, a barrage of Russian missiles hit a large Ukrainian base near the border with Nato member Poland, killing 35 people and wounding 134, in an escalation of the war to the west of the country as fighting raged elsewhere.
Ukraine has said previously it was willing to negotiate with Russia, but not to surrender in the conflict. Thousands have died and more than 2.5 million have fled since the war began.
Three rounds of talks between the two sides in Belarus, most recently last Monday, had focused mainly on humanitarian issues and led to the limited opening of some corridors for civilians to escape the fighting.
Mr Putin said last Friday there had been some "positive shifts" in the talks but did not elaborate.
Talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers produced no apparent progress towards a ceasefire last Thursday, but analysts said the fact that they were even meeting left a window open for ending the war.
‘No honour, no mercy’
Meanwhile, efforts continued to get help to the devastated southern city of Mariupol, which aid agencies say is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. A humanitarian column headed there had to turn back again on Sunday, a city official told AFP, after the Russians “did not stop firing”. It is expected to try again on Monday.
A total of 2,187 residents have now died in days of relentless Russian bombardment, the city council said on Sunday.
“The enemy is holding the city hostage by performing real acts of genocide,” said Ukraine Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
Mr Zelensky has accused Moscow of both blocking and attacking humanitarian convoys, although he said on Sunday that another 125,000 people had been evacuated that way across Ukraine.
“Russians are bombing the city even during official negotiations,” Mr Reznikov said. “They have no dignity, no honour, no mercy.”
Russia’s forces had earlier focused on the eastern and southern areas of Ukraine – home to more ethnic Russians – but in recent days have moved to the country’s centre, striking the city of Dnipro, and now to the west with the attack at the military base near Poland, which had been a training centre for Ukrainian forces with foreign instructors.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told ABC that Russia was “clearly, at least from an air strike perspective... broadening their target sets”.
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, only the roads to the south remain open, according to the Ukrainian presidency. The city authorities have set up checkpoints, and people are stockpiling food and medicine, fearing coming under siege.
The north-western suburb of Bucha is entirely held by Russian forces, along with parts of Irpin, Ukrainian soldiers told AFP. Some blocks in the once well-to-do suburb have been reduced to rubble.
‘Stop this massacre!’
Britain’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday that Russian forces were about 25km from Kyiv and that a column north of the city had dispersed as part of an apparent attempt to encircle it.
However, the Russians are encountering resistance from the Ukrainian army to both the east and west of the capital, according to AFP journalists on the scene.
“Russia is paying a high price for each advance as the Ukrainian Armed Forces continues to offer staunch resistance across the country,” Britain’s Defence Ministry said in its intelligence update.
The United Nations estimates almost 2.7 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, most of them to Poland, which is struggling to provide for the arrivals.