Ukraine claws back territory in country’s north ahead of talks in Istanbul

In Washington, President Biden defended unscripted comments he made in Poland over the weekend when he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” He clarified that he was “expressing moral outrage” and echoed aides who has said his comments didn’t represent a change in US policy or a campaign to remove the Russian leader.

Western intelligence officials and others say Moscow seems to be changing tactics to focus most intensely on the eastern Donbas region where the invasion began, after attempts to topple capital Kyiv and other key cities have stalled.

Ukrainian forces have taken back Trostianets, a town south of Sumy that is about 20 miles from Ukraine’s northeastern border with Russia, a senior US defense official said. Ukrainian officials said the government had regained control of Irpin, a suburb of capital Kyiv.

Irpin Mayor Alexandar Markushin said in a video posted Monday that the area had been reclaimed and that “mopping up” was underway. Speaking from inside a vehicle and dressed in a green military-style vest, he told residents of the suburb not to return yet, as the fighting was ongoing.

Ukrainian military officials separately said in a Facebook post that several Russian units had retreated toward Chernobyl in Ukraine’s north and over the border into Belarus to refresh their combat ability “as they have suffered significant losses.”

Despite the modest gains, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said there was no indication that Russia has fully reversed plans to take over or attack Kyiv. “According to our information, the Russian Federation has not 100 percent dropped their attempts if not to take at least to besiege the capital of Ukraine,” Ukrainian Defense Ministry official Sergey Rudskoy told reporters.

Rudskoy also gave updates on Russian losses, which could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. He said the Russian army had lost 17,000 people, 1,694 armored vehicles, 586 tanks, 302 artillery systems, 95 rocket systems, 123 aircraft and 66 drones. NATO last week estimated that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed.

The British Defense Ministry said in a daily intelligence briefing that Russian forces have continued to advance in Ukraine’s south, with the most substantial gains in the besieged city of Mariupol, but also that some units are still struggling with logistics issues and low morale.

The mayor of Mariupol again called for the urgent evacuation of the city’s remaining 160,000 civilians, who have gone without basic necessities including food and electricity for weeks under a Russian blockade and fierce shelling.

But Ukrainian officials said there would be no immediate efforts to evacuate citizens from besieged cities through humanitarian corridors, citing “possible provocations” by Russian forces. Despite that, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a Telegram post on Monday morning that 586 residents had escaped Mariupol in their own vehicles on Sunday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday said he would like to meet Putin in a neutral country for eventual negotiations, striking a more conciliatory tone ahead of the talks in Turkey on Tuesday. He also said Ukraine is open to dialing back its ambitions to join NATO, an apparent concession to Moscow, on the condition that Russian troops exit the country.

The remarks, made in a rare interview with Russian journalists, were swiftly censored in Russia, which has tightened media controls to protect the Kremlin’s narrative about the war.

Russian officials have played down expectations for the talks.

“So far, we cannot and will not talk about progress,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a daily call with journalists on Monday.

UN Secretary General António Guterres on Monday joined calls for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine to pave the way for “serious political negotiations,” adding that he was in close contact with countries including Turkey, Qatar, Israel, India, China, France and Germany to discuss mediation plans.

Turkey has also called for a reduction in the conflict. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Putin in a telephone call on Sunday that a cease-fire and efforts to improve the humanitarian conditions were necessary.

The country’s proximity to the conflict has not only interrupted trade relations but raised safety alarms. The Turkish and Romanian defense ministries have in recent days worked to neutralize potentially explosive mines amid concerns that live weaponry could drift from Ukraine’s southern shores toward its Black Sea neighbors, according to statements by the respective ministries.

The Pentagon announced that it is deploying about 240 troops and six Navy electronic warfare aircraft to Germany in an effort to reinforce NATO powers in Eastern Europe.

“They are not being deployed to be used against Russian forces in Ukraine,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. “They are being deployed completely in keeping with our efforts to bolster NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities.”

The move nevertheless will probably anger Russia, which has cited NATO’s expansion in Europe as a pressure point in its decision to invade Ukraine. Kirby said the planes would not be used to jam Russian communications but would help bolster security in Eastern Europe.

Analysts say Biden’s comment over the weekend calling for Putin to be ousted also will probably worsen tensions and reaffirm anti-US narratives in Moscow. Biden insisted on Monday that he was not “walking anything back” and would make no apologies. But he also reiterated that he is not calling for regime change in Moscow.

Since the invasion began, more than 3.8 million Ukrainians have fled the country into the European Union — over half of them children, according to EU officials. Most of the refugees have flowed into neighboring countries, primarily Poland, with about 1 million traveling to other countries across the bloc, Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, said at a news conference in Brussels on Monday.

The exits from Ukraine have slowed, however, with daily arrivals shrinking from a peak of 100,000 a day to about 40,000, Johansson said.

Inside Russia, a battle over the use of foreign social media outlets continued Monday, amid Moscow’s crackdown on sites that report information outside the Kremlin’s official narrative.

Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Emily Rauhala in Brussels; Annabelle Timsit, Kareem Fahim and Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul; and Julian Mark, Brittany Shammas and Maite Fernández in Washington contributed to this report.

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