More mixed signals from Russia as Ukraine War enters sixth week

KRAKOW, Poland – Facing deeper isolation day by day Ukraine War, Russia appeared to have slightly adjusted its stance on Thursday, allowing more humane access to the devastated port city of Mariupol and appearing to back away from a payment confrontation with gas customers. Europe.

But Western officials say they have seen little evidence supports Russia’s claim that it is significantly reducing its military presence around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and fighting continued unabated in areas around the city on Thursday. In Dnipro, the central city that has become a hub for humanitarian aid to other parts of Ukraine, a Russian attack overnight destroyed an oil terminal, a local official said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference: “Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities, so we can expect additional offensive actions, which cause a lot of pain. suffering even more,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference.

Whatever Moscow’s true intentions on the battlefield, Russian officials mocked Thursday in the US announced a day earlier that subordinates of the President Vladimir V. Putinfear of his rampage, had misled him about how the war was going.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said: “They don’t understand President Putin. “They don’t understand the decision-making mechanism and they don’t understand the efforts in our work.”

In Mariupol, where the population has, for weeks, been cut off from the outside world by intense Russian bombardment and intense fighting, a respite may come amid reports for that a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross are preparing to try to enter the city. The group hopes to deliver emergency humanitarian aid and begin evacuating residents on Friday.

Crystal Wells, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Geneva, said: “It seemed like there was some glimmer of hope that we could go, so we needed to bond.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have perished, and survivors are trapped in basements with no electricity or heat, and desperately short of food, water and other necessities.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said on Thursday that a convoy of 45 buses had departed for Mariupol to reach stranded residents and had reached an agreement on a passage for evacuation. residents from the city of Melitopol, further west.

People from both cities are expected to make their way to Zaporizhzhia, a city further north still under Ukrainian control, although evacuations in the previous days have been sporadic and usually removed at the last minute because of teamfights.

The Russians also appear to be lax with Putin’s demand that European customers using his country’s natural gas now pay in rubles, or risk being cut. European governments, which are heavily dependent on Russian gas imports, have rejected the new condition, arguing that it violates the sales contract.

After speaking with the Russian leader, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said he did not believe Europe was “in danger” when its gas supplies were cut off. He said he understood that the Russian President would make a “concession” for European countries and that converting payments from dollars or euros to rubles was “an internal matter of the Russian Federation.”

Russia also said on Thursday that its forces would leave the defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, according to a statement from Ukraine’s state energy company. Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history, has been occupied by Russian troops since the early days of the war.

When asked about unconfirmed reports that some of the Russian troops had suffered from radiation sickness, the Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said the troop transfer appeared to be part of the re-introduction process. broader positioning and not because of “health hazards or some kind of emergency or crisis at Chernobyl. ”

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have signaled their readiness to resume negotiations on how to end the war, now in its sixth week. A member of Ukraine’s negotiating team said that discussions would continue via video link on Friday, and the foreign minister of Turkey, which is hosting this week’s talks, said that Russian and Ukrainian levels. can meet within a few weeks.

And on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to cautiously support a proposal circulating in Europe’s power corridors that could help bring about a peace deal. In principle, Erdogan said, Turkey could help ensure Ukraine’s security.

During peace talks earlier this week in Istanbul, Ukrainian officials said their country was ready to accept a key request from Moscow and declare permanent neutrality, giving up hope of joining NATO. Ukrainian negotiators also said they were ready to discuss Russia’s territorial claims.

But the Ukrainians say they will make concessions only in return security from a group of other countries.

Ukrainian officials envision an agreement in which a group of countries — potentially including NATO members such as the United States, Britain, Turkey, France and Germany — would commit to defending Ukraine.

On Thursday, a Ukrainian negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, suggested to a Turkish television station that the so-called guarantor states would be legally obliged to provide weapons, military personnel or financial aid. main if the conflict related to Ukraine erupts again.

“This is what this treaty means: A country considering an attack will know that Ukraine is not alone,” he said.

The big question is whether Moscow, which has repeatedly opposed what NATO calls NATO encroachment, finds this pleasant.

Despite Russia’s claims that the war is going as planned, the Kremlin is said to be grappling with problems in its military, which have put Ukraine far less than experts have said. the West expected.

On Thursday, the director of Britain’s electronics watchdog, Jeremy Fleming, speak Russian forces, hampered by low morale and lack of weapons, accidentally shot down their own plane and refused to carry out orders.

But in Russia itself, Putin’s approval ratings have reached levels not seen in years, according to one Russian. poll was released on Thursday, as many Russians protested around the flag in the face of sanctions and other international pressure.

While the reliability of the poll can be questioned – especially since Mr. Putin has severely restricted freedom of expression since the war – it was conducted by the Levada Center, one of the few. remaining independent exploration groups in Russia.

Denis Volkov, director of the center, said: “The confrontation with the West has strengthened everyone.

Although they generally do not support Mr. Putin, some respondents believe that now is the time to do so.

People believe that “everyone is against us” and that “Putin defends us; otherwise we will be eaten alive,” said Mr. Volkov.

The devastating ripple effects of war have spilled over into markets around the world.

Both Ukraine and Russia are the world’s major suppliers of wheat, corn and barley, but Ukrainian agriculture officials on Thursday said more than 16 million tonnes of grain were trapped in the country and Ukraine had missed at least 1.5 billion USD in export turnover. . Earlier this week, the US State Department’s No. 2 official warned at a United Nations Security Council meeting that the war had “immediate and dangerous effects on global food security”. “.

With fuel costs skyrocketing due to sanctions on Russian oil, the US government has announced a plan to release up to 180 million barrels from strategic reserves over the next six months to expand supply and discount.

However, the Biden administration has made it clear that it will expand sanctions on Russia as part of a US-led effort to cripple Russia’s economy as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine. .

In Washington, the Treasury Department on Thursday issued new sanctions against Russian technology companies and what it calls an illegal procurement network that Russia is using to evade sanctions. now available.

“We will continue to target Putin’s war machine with sanctions from every angle until this pointless war of choice is over,” said Finance Minister, Janet L. Yellen, said in a statement.

Megan Specia reported from Krakow, Poland, Anton Troianovski from Istanbul and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Report contributed by Patricia Cohen from London, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Melissa Eddy from Berlin, and Alan Rappeport from Washington.

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