By Jonathan Spicer and Gleb Garanich
ISTANBUL/KYIV OUTSKIRTS/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russia promised at peace talks on Tuesday to scale down its military operations around Kyiv and northern Ukraine, while Ukraine proposed adopting a neutral status but with international guarantees that it would be protected from attack.
The talks in a palace in Istanbul came as Russia’s invasion has been halted on most fronts by strong resistance, with Ukrainians recapturing territory in counter-attacks, even as civilians are trapped in besieged cities.
“In order to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieving the ultimate goal of agreeing and signing (an) agreement, a decision was made to radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions,” Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told reporters.
Russia’s General Staff would reveal more detail about those decisions after the Russian delegation returned to Moscow, Fomin added.
The talks held in Istanbul on Tuesday were the first face-to-face meeting between the sides since March 10.
Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, and has failed to capture any major Ukrainian cities after meeting fierce resistance.
Ukraine’s proposals at the talks were the most detailed that either side has aired publicly.
Ukrainian negotiators said that under their proposals, Ukraine would agree not to join alliances or host bases of foreign troops, but would have its security guaranteed in terms similar to “Article 5”, the collective defence clause of NATO.
They identified Israel and NATO members Canada, Poland and Turkey as countries that could help provide such guarantees. Russia, the United States, Britain, Germany and Italy could also provide guarantees.
The proposals would include a 15-year consultation period on the status of Russian-annexed Crimea, and could come into force only in the event of a complete ceasefire, the negotiators said.
The fate of the southeastern Donbas region, which Russia demands Ukraine cede to separatists, would be set aside to be discussed by the Ukrainian and Russian leaders, they added. Any peace deal would require a referendum in Ukraine.
Top Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said he would examine the Ukrainian proposals and report on them to President Vladimir Putin. The Ukrainian negotiators called for a meeting between Putin and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“If we manage to consolidate these key provisions … then Ukraine will be in a position to actually fix its current status as a non-bloc and non-nuclear state in the form of permanent neutrality,” Ukrainian negotiator Oleksander Chaly said.
“We will not host foreign military bases on our territory, as well as deploy military contingents on our territory, and we will not enter into military-political alliances,” he said. Military exercises would take place with the consent of the guarantor countries.
More than a month into the war, the biggest attack on a European nation since World War Two, more than 3.9 million people have fled abroad, thousands have been killed and injured, and Russia’s economy has been pummelled by sanctions.
In the southern port city of Mariupol, besieged by Russian forces since the war’s early days, nearly 5,000 people have been killed, according to figures from the mayor which cannot be verified.
In parts of the city now held by Russian troops, the few visible residents appeared ghostlike among charred and bombed-out apartment blocks. A little girl in a pink puffy coat and yellow knitted hat was playing with a stick in the ruins as explosions crackled in the distance. Someone was scavenging through the rubble with a wheelbarrow.
“Look at our food reserve. We are eight people. We have two buckets of potatoes, one bucket of onions,” said Irina, an engineer, in her apartment where windows had been blasted out. They were boiling soup on a makeshift stove in the stairwell.
Elsewhere, however, Ukrainian forces have made advances in recent days, recapturing territory from Russian troops on the outskirts of Kyiv, in the northeast, and in the south, as Moscow’s invasion has stalled in the face of strong resistance.
An area recaptured by Ukrainian forces northeast of the capital on a road towards the village of Rusaniv was littered with burnt-out tanks and bits of Russian uniforms. Surrounding houses were destroyed. A Ukrainian in uniform was digging a pit in the soil to bury the charred remains of a Russian soldier.
In the southern city of Mykolaiv, a missile blasted a hole through the main administrative building. Authorities said at least seven people were killed and 20 injured, including 18 pulled from the rubble by rescue workers.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia had largely completed the first phase of its military assault, had degraded Ukraine’s military capabilities and would now focus on areas claimed by separatists in the southeast.
Moscow made a similar declaration late last week, interpreted in the West as a sign it was giving up on initial aims of toppling the Kyiv government.
Russia calls its mission a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. The West says it launched an unprovoked invasion.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was at the venue of the talks. The Kremlin said he was there as a go-between but not part of Russia’s delegation. Russia, the United States and Ukraine have all played down media reports that he may have been poisoned while on an earlier peace mission.
Air raid sirens sounded before dawn across Ukraine, the latest sign of Russia’s increasing reliance on long-range strikes. Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday it had struck a large fuel depot in the western Rivne region overnight, far from any fighting.
In an address on Monday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated calls for the West to go further in punishing Moscow for its invasion, including expanding sanctions to ban energy exports.
“We, people who are alive, have to wait. Doesn’t everything the Russia military has done to date warrant an oil embargo?”
(Reporting by Gleb Garaninch in the KYIV OUTSKIRTS, a Reuters journalist in MARIUPOL, Jonathan Spicer in ISTANBUL, Pavel Polityuk in LVIV and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Heavens)