KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces pounded areas around Ukraine’s capital and another city, regional leaders said Wednesday, just hours after Moscow pledged to scale back military operations in those places. The shelling further tempered optimism about any progress in talks aimed at ending the punishing war.
Russia did not spell out what exactly it planned to do differently, and while the promise initially raised hopes that a path toward peace was coming into view, Ukraine’s president and others cautioned that the remarks could merely be bluster and the Kremlin’s spokesman said he saw no breakthrough in the talks.
Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling hit homes, shops, libraries and other “civilian infrastructure” in the northern city of Chernihiv and on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.
The barrages came as Britain’s Defense Ministry warned that while heavy losses have forced some Russian units to return to Belarus and Russia, Moscow would likely compensate for any reduction in ground maneuvers by using mass artillery and missile strikes. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, said Russian troops were intensifying their attacks around the eastern city of Izyum and the eastern Donetsk region, after redeploying some units from other areas.
As the war unleashed five weeks ago by Moscow ground on, so, too, did the fallout beyond Ukraine’s borders. The United Nations said the number of refugees fleeing the country has now surpassed a staggering 4 million, while European industrial powerhouse Germany 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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted with skepticism to Russia’s announcement amid talks in Istanbul on Tuesday that it would reduce military activity near the capital and Chernihiv.
“We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” he said in his nightly video address to the Ukrainian people. “But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.”
That skepticism only gained ground Wednesday morning.
“The so-called reduction of activity in the Chernihiv region, was demonstrated by the enemy strikes including air strikes on Nizhyn, and all night long they were shelling Chernihiv,” said the regional governor, Viacheslav Chaus. “Civilian infrastructure facilities, libraries, shopping centers, many houses were destroyed in Chernihiv.”
Oleksandr Pavliuk, the head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Wednesday that Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.
They weren’t the only attacks by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that the military targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. Russian forces also hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the eastern Donetsk region.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces noted intensified shelling and attacks in the Donetsk area, where it say Russian forces were focused on trying to win control over the besieged city of Mariupol and other cities.
Donetsk is in the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where the Russian military says it has shifted its attention. Top Russian military officials have said twice in recent days that their main goal now is the “liberation” of Donbas, where Moscow-backed rebels have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Western officials also said Moscow was now reinforcing troops in the Donbas in a bid to encircle Ukraine’s forces there. And Russia’s deadly siege in the south continues.
Some analysts have suggested that the apparent scaling back of the Kremlin’s aims and the pledge to reduce activity around Kyiv and Chernihiv may merely reflect the reality on the ground: Its troops have become bogged down 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, reportedly killing two people and wounding four. 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 one resident, Anna Gorda.
Still, there were hints of the outline of a possible agreement to end the war after the latest round of talks Tuesday in Istanbul.
Kyiv’s delegation offered a framework for a peace deal under which a neutral Ukraine’s security would be guaranteed by a group of other countries. Among other things, the Kremlin has demanded all along that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO.
Moscow reacted coolly to that offer, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying Wednesday it was a “positive factor” that Ukraine has submitted its written proposals but that he saw no breakthrough.
Still, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow would in the meantime “fundamentally … cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
But Zelenskyy warned the world and his own people not to get ahead of themselves.
“Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results,” he said.
Western countries also expressed doubts about Russia’s intentions.
“We judge the Russian military machine by its actions, not just its words,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News on Wednesday. “There’s obviously some skepticism that it will regroup to attack again rather than seriously engaging in diplomacy.”
He added that “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.”
An assessment from Britain’s Ministry of Defense said that Russia’s focus on the Donbas region “is likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance.”
“Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and resupply,” the ministry said in a statement Wednesday. “Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganizing its units in forward areas within Ukraine.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. has detected small numbers of Russian ground forces moving away from the Kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, “not a real withdrawal.”
In response to Moscow’s pledge, U.S. President Joe Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said they would wait to see what Russia’s actions are.
Blinken added that Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt to “deceive people and deflect attention.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. In the tense buildup to the invasion, the Russian military announced some units were loading equipment onto rail cars and preparing to return to their home bases after completing exercises. Ten days later, Russia launched its invasion.
The war it triggered has devastated a nation that once was a major food exporter.
The United Nations’ food aid agency said it is now providing emergency assistance to 1 million people in Ukraine, including 330,000 freshly baked loaves of bread to families in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
The Rome-based World Food Program estimated that 45% of Ukraine’s population is worried about finding enough to eat. Millions more have simply left the country.
Tetyana Parmynska, a 28-year-old from the Chernihiv region now at a refugee center in Poland, said she hoped for peace. Nearby, a man played songs on a battered black piano decorated with a white peace emblem.
“Children are suffering, and our city, and everything,” Parmynska said. “We have no strength anymore.”