© Reuters. Dima, a three-year-old boy injured in the shelling of Mariupol, lies in a bed in the pediatric ward of the hospital as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, March 29, 2022. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
By Natalia Zinets and Gleb Garanicho
LVIV, Ukraine/Kiev OUTSKIRTS (Reuters) – Russian forces bombed a besieged city in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, a day after promising to wind down operations there, and Kiev and its Western allies rejected a withdrawal near the capital as a ploy to regroup by invaders suffering heavy casualties.
Nearly five weeks after an invasion in which it failed to capture major cities, Russia said it would curtail operations near Kiev and the northern city of Chernihiv “to increase mutual trust” for peace talks.
But Chernihiv mayor Vladyslav Astroshenko said Russian bombing had only increased in the past 24 hours, with more than 100,000 people trapped in the city with just enough food and medical supplies to last about another week.
“This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies,” he told CNN in an interview. “They have even stepped up the intensity of the attacks,” with “a colossal mortar attack in the center of Chernihiv” on Wednesday that left 25 civilians injured. Reuters was unable to immediately verify the situation there.
In a late-night speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made it clear that he would not take anything Moscow said at face value.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during these 34 days of invasion, and during the past eight years of the war in Donbas, that the only thing they can rely on is a concrete result.”
Zelenskiy adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Moscow is moving some troops from northern Ukraine to the east, where it is trying to encircle the main Ukrainian force there. Some Russians would remain near Kiev to tie up Ukrainian troops, he said.
Russian forces also hit industrial facilities in western Ukraine last night with three strikes, a regional governor said.
Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have made significant gains by retaking towns and villages on the outskirts of Kiev, breaking the siege on the eastern city of Sumy and pushing back Russian forces in the southwest.
The Pentagon said Russia had begun moving very small numbers of troops from positions around Kiev, describing the move as more of a repositioning than a withdrawal.
“We must all be prepared for a major offensive against other parts of Ukraine,” NYSE spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference. “It does not mean that the threat to Kiev is over.”
The British Ministry of Defense said Moscow was forced to pull troops from the Kiev area to Russia and Belarus to resupply and reorganize after suffering heavy casualties. Russia would likely compensate for its reduced ground maneuvering capability through massive artillery and missile strikes, it added.
Russia says it is conducting a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. Western countries say Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion, including a large-scale attack on the capital that was repulsed by fierce Ukrainian defenses.
Moscow has said in recent days that its main focus is now on southeastern Ukraine, a region called the Donbas, where it is trying to capture more territory to hand it over to the separatists it has supported since 2014.
The area includes Mariupol, a port of 400,000 people destroyed after a month of Russian siege, where thousands of people have died, according to the United Nations.
On Wednesday, Russian troops shelled almost all the towns along the frontline separating the Ukrainian government-controlled area from areas controlled by the separatists in the region, the Donetsk governor said, and heavy fighting was reported in Mariupol.
The British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence briefing that the announcement that Moscow is now concentrating on the southeast was “probably a tacit admission that it is struggling to advance more than one major advance”.
About a quarter of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes in the biggest attack on a European country since World War II. The United Nations said on Wednesday that the number of people who have fled the country has risen above 4 million. More than half of those refugees are children and the rest are mostly women.
Russia and Ukraine held their first personal peace talks in nearly three weeks at a palace in Istanbul on Tuesday. Ukraine presented a peace proposal under which it would accept a neutral status with international guarantees to protect it from future attacks. The proposal called for a ceasefire and would postpone discussion of Russia’s territorial demands.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday it is good to have the Ukrainian proposal in writing, but there is no indication of a breakthrough yet. Russia was unable to negotiate for Crimea, which it seized and annexed in 2014, he said.
Western sanctions have isolated Russia from world trade to an extent never seen before in such a large economy. But Russia is still a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe, and Moscow has tried to exert that influence.
Last week, Moscow told Western buyers of its gas they would now have to pay with rubles, a demand rejected by the G7 group of industrialized democracies.
On Wednesday, Germany, Russia’s largest gas consumer, issued an “early warning” of a potential emergency if Russia were to cut supplies.
Economics Secretary Robert Habeck urged consumers and businesses to cut consumption, saying “Every kilowatt hour counts”. Stocks were secured for the time being, but “nevertheless, we must step up precautions to be prepared for an escalation in Russia”.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the shift to payment in rubles would take time and would not be imposed immediately. The Russian gas monopoly and the central bank are expected to propose plans for payments of rubles on Thursday.
In a post on social media, the Speaker of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said that Europe should not oppose the pricing of rubles.
“If you want gas, get rubles,” he said.
Volodin suggested expanding the demand for ruble payments to other export commodities, such as oil, grains and metals. Peskov called this a good idea to be studied.
(Reproting by Natalia Zinets and Gleb Garanich; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)