- UK says some Russian units leave Ukraine to regroup
- Reporters see ruins and bodies in retaken villages
- US on lookout for major offensive elsewhere
- ‘Ukrainians are not naive’ says Zelenskiy
- Moscow demands ruble payments for exports
MALA ROHAN/NEAR IRPIN, Ukraine, March 30 (Reuters) – Russian forces bombarded the outskirts of Kyiv and a besieged city in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, a day after promising to scale down operations there in what the West dismissed as a ploy to regroup by invaders taking heavy losses.
Nearly five weeks into an invasion in which it has failed to capture any major cities, Russia said it would curtail operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv “to increase mutual trust” for peace talks.
But intensified bombardment could be heard in Kyiv on Wednesday morning from the direction of frontline suburbs where Ukrainian forces have regained territory in recent days. The capital itself was not hit, but windows rattled from the relentless artillery on its outskirts.
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Reuters journalists southeast of Irpin, a Kyiv suburb which has seen weeks of heavy clashes, heard the sound of frequent shelling and ordnance exploding on the ground and in the air. Ukrainians evacuating spoke of heavy shelling north of Irpin, shells landing in Irpin itself and dead bodies in the streets.
Chernihiv’s Mayor Vladyslav Astroshenko said Russian bombardment of that city had intensified over the past 24 hours, with more than 100,000 people trapped inside with just enough food and medical supplies to last about another week.
“This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies,” he told CNN. “They actually have increased the intensity of strikes,” with “a colossal mortar attack in the center of Chernihiv” on Wednesday wounding 25 civilians.
Reuters could not verify the situation in Chernihiv. Russia’s defense ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Irpin itself was recaptured by Ukrainian forces this week. Reuters journalists who entered on Tuesday saw Ukrainian troops patrolling an abandoned ghost town of ruined buildings, with the body of an old man and a woman lying on the streets.
In an overnight address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made clear he took nothing Moscow said at face value.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during these 34 days of invasion, and over the past eight years of the war in Donbas, that the only thing they can trust is a concrete result.”
Zelenskiy adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Moscow was shifting some forces from northern Ukraine to the east, trying to encircle the main Ukrainian force there. Some Russians would stay behind near Kyiv to tie Ukrainian forces down, he said.
Russian forces also hit industrial facilities in western Ukraine in three strikes overnight, a regional governor said.
Around a quarter of Ukrainians have been driven from their homes by the biggest attack on a European country since World War Two. The United Nations said on Wednesday that the number who have fled the country had risen above 4 million. More than half of those refugees are children and the rest mostly women.
The past week has seen Ukrainian forces make substantial advances, recapturing towns and villages on the outskirts of Kyiv, breaking the siege of the eastern city of Sumy and pushing back Russian forces in the southwest.
Reuters journalists who visited the recaptured areas saw villages flattened, literate with the burned-out wreckage of Russian tanks and charred bodies of soldiers.
In the village of Mala Rohan in the eastern Kharkiv region, two burned-out tanks with their turrets ripped off stood near damaged houses. Maksym, a Ukrainian soldier, said the Russians were being pushed back “slowly but steadily”.
“I think their morale dropped. Most of them already understood that they made a huge mistake when they came here. Therefore, I think they have no chance here, we will win.”
The Pentagon said Russia had started moving very small numbers of troops away from positions around Kyiv, describing the move as more of a repositioning than a withdrawal.
“We all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine,” spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing. “It does not mean the threat to Kyiv is over.”
Russia says it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour. Western countries say Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion, which included a full-scale assault on the capital that was repelled by fierce Ukrainian defence.
Moscow has said its main focus is now on southeastern Ukraine, a region called the Donbas, where it is trying to capture more territory for separatists it has backed since 2014.
The area includes Mariupol, a port of 400,000 people laid to waste after a month of Russian siege, where the United Nations believes thousands of people may have died.
On Wednesday Russian forces were shelling nearly all cities along the region’s frontline, said the governor of Donetsk, which is part of the Donbas. Heavy fighting was again reported in Mariupol. read more
The British defense ministry said the announcement that Moscow was focusing on the Donbas was “likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance”.
It said heavy losses had forced Moscow to pull troops to Russia and Belarus to resupply and reorganise.
Russia and Ukraine held their first face-to-face peace talks in nearly three weeks at a palace in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Ukraine presented a peace proposal under which it would accept neutral status with international guarantees to protect it from future attack. The proposal calls for cease a fire, and would postpone discussion of Russia’s territorial demands.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday it was good to have the Ukrainian proposal in writing but there was no indication of a breakthrough. read more
Western sanctions have isolated Russia from world trade to a degree never before visited on such a large economy. But Russia is still the biggest supplier of oil and gas to Europe. It has told Western buyers they will have to pay with rubles.
On Wednesday, Germany, Russia’s biggest gas customer, declared an “early warning” of a possible emergency if Russia were to cut off supplies. read more
Economy Minister Robert Habeck urged consumers and companies to reduce consumption, saying “every kilowatt-hour counts”.
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Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Gleb Garanich and Reuters bureaus Writing by Peter Graff Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Gareth Jones
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