Ukraine says Russia must withdraw to pre-war positions before talks can happen

Ukraine says Russia must withdraw to pre-war positions before talks can happen
Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on screen as he addresses the audience from Kyiv during the World Economic Forum in Davos (AP)

Ukraine’s president has said Russia must pull back to its pre-war positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he currently sees no willingness on the part of Russia to resume earnest negotiations on ending the three-month war.

“At the beginning, there was an impression that we can move ahead, that there would be a certain result or some outcome of those talks. But it all has stalled,” Mr Zelenskyy said through an interpreter via video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

He expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear its willingness to engage in serious talks.

“They should demonstrate at least something like steps withdrawing their troops and equipment to the position before the 24th of February,” the day Russia’s invasion began, he said. “That would be a correct step, first step in negotiations.”

Mr Zelenskyy also made clear that Ukraine’s aim is to regain all of its lost territory.

“Ukraine is not going to concede our territory. We are fighting in our country, on our land,” he said.

Russia, which has gradually narrowed its own military goals in Ukraine amid fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, might be playing for time, Mr Zelenskyy added.

Tombs of people who died after the Russia invasion in Bucha cemetery, on the outskirts of Kyiv (AP)

A regional governor in eastern Ukraine said that at least six civilians have been killed by the latest Russian shelling in a town at the epicentre of fighting.

Luhansk region governor Serhiy Haidai said that another eight people have been wounded in the shelling of Sievierodonetsk over the past 24 hours. He accused Russian troops of deliberately targeting shelters where civilians were hiding.

The town is located in in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where Russian forces have been pressing their offensive despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.

Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swathes of territory. Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring cities are the only part of the Donbas’ Luhansk region still under Ukrainian government control.

Residents live in a subway station still used as temporary shelter in Kharkiv (AP)

Injuries were also reported from the eastern town of Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region on Wednesday morning.

Pokrovsk’s administration head, Ruslan Trebushkin, said in a Facebook post that the damage caused and the number of injured were still being assessed.

One strike left a crater at least three metres deep. A row of low terraced houses near the strike suffered significant damage, with roofing tiles blown off, door frames ripped from the walls and pieces of concrete scattered around.

“There’s no place to live in left, everything is smashed,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother-of-two who lived in one of the terraced houses.

A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka (AP)

The windows had been blown out by an earlier strike about a month ago, and they had replaced them with plastic sheeting. That, she said, probably saved their lives as at least there was no glass flying around.

On Tuesday, Mr Zelenskyy said the country’s forces in the region faced a difficult situation.

“Practically the full might of the Russian army, whatever they have left, is being thrown at the offensive there,” he said in his nightly address to the nation. “Liman, Popasna, Sievierodonetsk, Slaviansk – the occupiers want to destroy everything there.”

A solution to getting wheat out of Ukraine for export does not appear to be imminent.

British military authorities say Ukraine’s overland export routes are “highly unlikely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa, putting further pressure on global grain prices.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence, in an update posted on Wednesday morning, said there has been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.

The MoD said the blockade, combined with the shortage of overland shipping routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and cannot be exported.

Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol has become functional after three months of fighting.

The military has completed clearing the port of land mines and it has been made fully operational, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday.

Russian forces have taken full control over Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, after the last Ukrainian defenders at the giant Azovstal seaside steel plant laid down their weapons.

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