Russian forces bombarded areas around Kyiv and another city just hours after pledging to scale back military operations in those places to help negotiations along, Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday.
The shelling — and intensified Russian attacks on other parts of the country — tempered optimism about any progress in the talks aimed at ending the punishing war.
The Russian military’s announcement Tuesday that it would de-escalate near the capital and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust” was met with deep suspicion from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the West.
Soon after, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian shelling hit homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites in and around Chernihiv and on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian troops also stepped up their attacks around the eastern city of Izyum and the eastern Donetsk region, after redeploying some units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.
Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie.”
“At night they didn’t decrease, but vice versa increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.
Five weeks into the invasion that has left thousands dead on both sides, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering 4 million, half of them children, according to the United Nations.
“I do not know if we can still believe the Russians,” Nikolay Nazarov, a refugee from Ukraine, said as he pushed his father’s wheelchair at a border crossing into Poland. “I think more escalation will occur in eastern Ukraine. That is why we cannot go back to Kharkiv.”
Meanwhile, the economic repercussions from the war and the West’s sanctions against Moscow widened. Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, issued a warning over its natural gas supplies amid concerns that Russia could cut off deliveries unless it is paid in rubles. Poland announced steps to end all Russian oil imports by the end of 2022.
At a round of talks held Tuesday in Istanbul, the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge when the Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral — dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded — in return for security guarantees from a group of other nations.
Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation, said Ukraine’s readiness to consider neutral status would meet a key Russian demand.
Medinsky said in televised comments that the proposals signaled Ukraine’s readiness to reach agreement “for the first time in years,” adding that if Ukraine makes good on its offer, “the threat of creating a NATO bridgehead on the Ukrainian territory will be removed.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sounded a positive note as well but added, “We can’t say there has been something promising or any breakthroughs.”
After the Kremlin’s announcement that it would scale back some of its military operations, Zelenskyy reacted by saying that when dealing with the Russians, “you can trust only concrete results.”
“We judge the Russian military machine by its actions, not just its words,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab likewise told Sky News. “There’s obviously some skepticism that it will regroup to attack again rather than seriously engaging in diplomacy.”
He added: “Of course, the door to diplomacy will always be left ajar, but I don’t think you can trust what is coming out of the mouth of Putin’s war machine.”
The skepticism appeared well-founded on Wednesday.
Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military also targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. And Russian forces hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the Donetsk region.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that over the last 24 hours, the U.S. has seen some Russian troops moving north away from Kyiv into Belarus but does not view this as a withdrawal, just an effort by Moscow to resupply, refit and then reposition the troops.
Top Russian military officials have said in recent days that their main goal now is the “liberation” of Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. And Western officials say Moscow is reinforcing troops in the Donbas.
Some analysts have suggested that the apparent scaling back of the Kremlin’s war aims and pledge to de-escalate may merely be an effort to put a positive spin on reality: Moscow’s ground troops have been thwarted — and taken heavy losses — in their bid to seize the capital and other cities.
Meanwhile, a missile destroyed part of an apartment block in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk early Wednesday, and two people were reported killed. Separatists blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack.
“I was just sitting on the couch and — bang! — the window glass popped, the frames came off. I didn’t even understand what happened,” said resident Anna Gorda.
The U.N. is looking into allegations that some residents of the besieged southern city of Mariupol have been forcibly evacuated to areas controlled by Russian forces or to Russia itself, said Michelle Bachelet, the agency’s high commissioner for human rights.
Also, the U.N. food aid agency said it is providing emergency assistance to 1 million people in Ukraine. It said the food includes 330,000 freshly baked loaves of bread for families in the heavily bombarded eastern city of Kharkiv.
“Children are suffering, and our city, and everything,” Tetyana Parmynska, a 28-year-old from the Chernihiv region now at a refugee center in Poland, said as man played songs on a battered piano decorated with a peace emblem. “We have no strength anymore.”