Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia must pull back to its prewar positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.
Zelensky said he currently sees no willingness on the part of Russia to resume earnest negotiations on ending the three-month-long war.
Speaking by video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelensky expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly but stressed that Moscow needed to make clear that it, too, was ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”
“It’s possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say ‘at least something,’ I mean pulling back troops to where they were before Feb. 24,” the day Russia’s invasion began, Zelensky said. “I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make.”
Zelensky also made clear that Ukraine wants to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas. “Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” he said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”
Attending the Davos forum in person, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the situation in the eastern Donbas region was “extremely bad.”
He called for friendly countries — particularly the United States — to provide the Ukrainian military with multiple-launch rocket systems so that it could try to recapture territory.
“Every day of someone sitting in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and considering whether they should or should not do something, costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.
A regional governor in eastern Ukraine said that at least six civilians have been killed by the latest Russian shelling in a town now at the epicenter of fighting three months into the war.
Luhansk regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai said eight people were wounded in the shelling of Severodonetsk over the last 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 concentrating their offensive despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Ukrainian forces continue to hold the city, but a key supply route is coming under pressure, Haidai said.
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Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swaths of territory. Severodonetsk and the nearby city of Lysychansk are the largest remaining settlements held by Ukraine in the Luhansk region, of which Haidai is the Kyiv-backed governor. The region is “more than 90%” controlled by Russia, he said.
The road between Lysychansk and the city of Bakhmut to the southwest is widely considered crucial to keeping Ukrainian troops in the area supplied. Haidai said that it was “constantly being shelled” and that Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams were approaching the area.
The head of the Donetsk region’s military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said two rockets that hit the town of Pokrovsk early Wednesday injured four civilians, who were treated in the hospital.
One strike left a crater at least 10 feet deep, the remnants of what appeared to be a rocket still smoldering. 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.
The windows had been blown out by an earlier strike about a month ago, and Kurbonova’s family had replaced them with plastic sheeting. That, Kurbonova said, probably saved their lives since there was no glass flying around.
Late Tuesday, Zelensky 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, Severodonetsk, Slovyansk — the occupiers want to destroy everything there.”
In a further sign that Moscow is trying to bolster its stretched military machine in Ukraine, Russian lawmakers passed a bill that scraps the age limit of 40 for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.
The chair of the parliament’s defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand specialties.” A description of the bill on the parliament’s website indicated that older recruits could be suited to operate precision weapons or to serve in engineering or medical roles.
Russian authorities have said that only volunteer contract soldiers are being sent to fight in Ukraine, although they acknowledge that some conscripts were drawn into the fighting by mistake in the early stages.
Separately, Putin has issued an order to allow a fast track to Russian citizenship for people in two southern regions of Ukraine that are largely held by Russian forces.
Putin’s decree, dated Wednesday, could allow Russia to strengthen its control over the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They form part of a land connection between eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin last week visited both regions and indicated that they could become part of “our Russian family.” A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region has predicted that the region could become part of Russia.
Russia already has a program for fast-track naturalization of people living in two regions of eastern Ukraine claimed by Russia-backed separatists.
Meanwhile, a solution to getting wheat out of Ukraine for export doesn’t 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.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense, in an update posted Wednesday, said there had been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.
The ministry said that the blockade, combined with the shortage of overland shipping routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and can’t be exported.
Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol in southern Ukraine has become functional again after three months of fighting.
The military has completed clearing the port of land mines, and it has been made fully operational, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday.
Russian forces have taken full control of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, after the last Ukrainian defenders at the giant Azovstal steelworks laid down their weapons.
Konashenkov said the Russian military had also used long-range air- and sea-launched missiles to destroy the production facilities of a key Ukrainian maker of aircraft engines, Motor Sich, in Zaporizhzhia.
The company specialized in helicopter engines, which were also used to equip Russian choppers before supplies were halted following the annexation of Crimea.