More Mixed Signals From Russia as Ukraine War Enters Sixth Week

KRAKOW, Poland — Faced with deepening isolation over the war in Ukraine, Russia on Thursday appeared to rethink its stance somewhat, allowing greater humanitarian access to the devastated port city of Mariupol and apparently pulling out of a payment clash with European gas customers .

But Western officials said they saw little evidence to support Russia’s claims that it sharply reduced its military presence around Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and that 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 destroyed an oil terminal overnight, a local official said.

“Russia is keeping pressure on Kiev and other cities, so we can expect additional offensive actions, which will inflict even more suffering,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference.

Whatever Moscow’s real intentions on the battlefield, Russian officials on Thursday mocked American claims a day earlier that subordinates of President Vladimir V. Putin, fearing his anger, misled him about how the war was going.

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

In Mariupol, where the population has been cut off from the outside world for weeks by heavy Russian bombing and heavy fighting, a postponement seemed possible amid reports that a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross was preparing to attempt to explore the city. The group hoped to deliver emergency humanitarian aid and begin evacuating residents on Friday.

“There seems to be a glimmer of hope that we can go, so we need to be close,” said Crystal Wells, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Geneva.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died and survivors are trapped in basements with no heating or electricity, 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 left for Mariupol to reach detained civilians, and that a passageway had been agreed for evacuating people from the city of Melitopol, further to the West.

People from both cities were expected to make their way to Zaporizhzhya, a city further north that remains under Ukrainian control, although evacuations have been sporadic in previous days, often being cut short at the last minute due to fighting.

The Russians also seemed to have some leeway on Mr Putin’s demand that European customers of his country’s natural gas now pay in rubles, or risk a shutdown. European governments, which are heavily dependent on Russian gas imports, had rejected this new condition, arguing it violated purchase contracts.

After speaking with the Russian leader, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said he did not believe Europe “threatened” to cut off its gas supplies. He said he understood that the Russian president would grant a “concession” to European countries, and that the conversion of payments from dollars or euros to rubles was “an internal matter of the Russian Federation”.

Russia also said on Thursday that its troops 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, had been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war.

Asked about unconfirmed reports that some Russian soldiers had had radiation sickness, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said the troop movement appeared to be part of a broader repositioning and not of “health risks or some sort of emergency or crisis in Chernobyl.” .”

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials said they were prepared to continue negotiations on how to end the war, now in its sixth week. A member of Ukraine’s negotiating team said talks would resume via video link on Friday, and Turkey’s foreign minister, who hosted the talks this week, said his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts could meet in weeks.

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

During peace talks in Istanbul earlier this week, Ukrainian officials said their country was ready to grant a key demand from Moscow and declare itself permanently neutral, giving up hopes of joining NATO. Ukrainian negotiators also said they are willing to discuss Russian territorial claims.

But the Ukrainians said they would only make the concessions in exchange for security guarantees from a group of other countries.

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

On Thursday, a Ukrainian negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, suggested to a Turkish broadcaster that the so-called guarantee countries would have legal obligations to provide weapons, military personnel or financial aid if the conflict in which Ukraine broke out again.

“This is the meaning of this pact: a country contemplating an attack knows that Ukraine is not alone,” he said.

The big question was whether Moscow, which has repeatedly objected to what it calls NATO encroachment, finds this palatable.

Despite Russian claims that the war was going according to plan, the Kremlin is said to be grappling with problems in its military, which has made far less progress in Ukraine than Western experts ever expected.

On Thursday, Jeremy Fleming, the director of Britain’s electronic surveillance agency, said Russian armed forces, hampered by low morale and weapons shortages, had accidentally shot down their own plane and refused to carry out orders.

But in Russia itself, Mr Putin’s approval ratings have reached levels unseen in years, according to a Russian poll released on Thursday as many Russians rally around the flag in the face of sanctions and other international pressure.

While the poll’s credibility might be questionable — especially since Mr Putin has severely curtailed free speech since the war — it was conducted by the Levada Center, one of the few independent polling groups left in Russia.

“The confrontation with the West has consolidated people,” said Denis Volkov, the center’s director.

While they generally did not support Mr Putin, some respondents said now is the time to do so.

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

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

Both Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of wheat, maize and barley, but Ukrainian agricultural officials said on Thursday that more than 16 million tons of grain had been stranded in the country and Ukraine had lost at least $1.5 billion in exports. Earlier this week, the No. 2 US State Department official warned at a UN Security Council meeting that the war had “immediate and dangerous consequences for global food security.”

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

Still, the Biden administration made it clear that it would extend sanctions against Russia as part of its American-led effort to cripple the Russian economy as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine.

In Washington, the Treasury Department on Thursday issued new sanctions against Russian technology companies and so-called illegal procurement networks that Russia uses to circumvent existing sanctions.

“We will continue to attack Putin’s war machine with sanctions from every angle until this senseless choice war is over,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement.

Megan Special reported from Krakow, Poland, Anton Trojanovskic from Istanbul and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Reporting contributed by Patricia Cohen from London, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Melissa Eddie from Berlin, and Alan Rappeport from Washington.


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