Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to “fight for every metre” of Ukrainian land, saying his forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the eastern Donbas region as Moscow amasses troops there.
Zelenskyy, in his nightly video address to the nation on Wednesday, said Ukraine is at a “turning point” in the five-week war with Russia and again urged Western nations to send more weapons.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, driven about a quarter of Ukrainians from their homes and brought Russian-Western tensions to their worst point since the Cold War.
Tough resistance by Ukrainian forces has prevented Russia from capturing any major city, including the capital, Kyiv, where a Russian armed column was held back for weeks. At peace talks this week in Istanbul, Russia said it would curtail operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to build trust in the negotiations.
But Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, dismissed Russia’s pledge as a ploy to stem its losses and prepare for other attacks. Russia says its forces are regrouping to focus on “liberating” the breakaway eastern Donbas region.
In his address, Zelenskyy referred to Russian troop movements away from Kyiv and Chernihiv, saying that was not a withdrawal but “the consequence of our defenders’ work”.
Ukraine is seeing “a build-up of Russian forces for new attacks on the Donbas and we are preparing for that”, he said, adding that Ukrainians “won’t give up anything and we’ll fight for every metre of our land, for every citizen”.
Moscow has cultivated close ties with pro-Russian separatists controlling swaths of Donbas, which encompasses two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” that Russia says it is helping to free from Ukrainian control.
Earlier on Wednesday, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin said offensive operations were intensifying.
“We are well aware that the longer it takes us to liberate our territory, those settlements that are now under control of Ukraine, the more victims and destruction there will be,” he said.
Donetsk includes the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting and bombardment and where some 170,000 people are trapped with scarce food and water.
“We cook what we find among neighbours. A bit of cabbage, a bit more of potatoes, we’ve found tomato paste, some beetroot,” former steelworker Viktor told Reuters. They cook using a rudimentary barbecue and sleep in a basement, which he termed their “peaceful oasis”.
Russian forces have now taken half of the strategic port city, according to Ukrainian officials. Russia’s defence ministry said it was prepared to observe a ceasefire in Mariupol to let civilians evacuate the city on Thursday.
Russia is demanding that Ukraine cede the Donbas to the separatists and the fate of the southeastern region was a topic of discussion at peace talks held on Tuesday in Istanbul.
Ukraine has sought a ceasefire without compromising on territory or sovereignty, though it has proposed adopting a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees. Russia opposes Ukraine joining the US-led NATO military alliance, and has cited its potential membership as a reason for the invasion.
Ukrainian negotiator says talks will resume by video on Friday, but there seemed to be little faith that a resolution would emerge anytime soon, particularly with Ukraine accusing Russia of continuing to shell Kyiv and Chernihiv after pledging to de-escalate operations there.
Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie”.
“At night they didn’t decrease, but increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.
The US meanwhile said that over the last 24 hours, Russia had begun to reposition less than 20 percent of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said troops from there and some other zones have begun moving, largely to the north, and some have gone into Belarus. Kirby said it appears Russia intends to resupply them and send them back into Ukraine, but it is not clear where.
The Ukrainian military said some Russian airborne units were recorded in neighbouring Belarus and were believed to have withdrawn from Ukraine.
In northern Ukraine, Russian forces took no offensive actions Wednesday, focusing on reconnaissance and logistics, the general staff said in a statement. But Russia is expected to increase attacks soon on Ukrainian forces to protect its own troops as they are repositioned, it said.
The Russians also are expected to try to blockade Chernihiv, it said.
Reporting from Kyiv, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said some people had started returning to the capital despite concerns over limited supplies.
“Kyiv hasn’t fallen, it’s still standing, still very defiant,” he said. “People are coming back into the city, but that presents another problem: there is limited food coming into the city,” added Khan.
“Kyiv has shown itself to be a city that’s very resilient and a city that wants to return back to normal life.”