A day after Russia said it would “drastically” reduce attacks on strategic northern cities in its war against Ukraine, reports of missiles hitting those regions overnight emerged Wednesday as Ukrainian and Western officials remained skeptical of any easing of the offensive.
Ukrainian forces reported shooting down rockets outside the capital of Kyiv, while a regional official said the northern city of Chernihiv saw regular shelling overnight.
“The ‘decreased activity’ in the Chernihiv region was demonstrated by the enemy carrying out strikes on Nizhyn, including airstrikes, and all night long they hit Chernihiv,” regional Gov. Viacheslav Chaus said on the Telegram messaging app. He added that libraries and shopping malls had been damaged.
There were “no areas without sirens” in Ukraine, Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to the interior minister, told CNN, naming the Donbas in the east, Kyiv and Khmelnytsky, a western region where an industrial site was hit with no reported injuries. In Lviv, a relatively unscathed western city, air-raid alarms went off Wednesday, though no overnight attacks were reported.
The war’s humanitarian toll continued to grow, with the United Nations saying Wednesday that the number of Ukrainian refugees has now surpassed 4 million. About 1 in 11 Ukrainians have fled their homeland in a matter of five weeks, while 6.5 million more are displaced within the nation’s borders.
After negotiations Tuesday in Istanbul, Russia pledged to scale down its attacks on Kyiv and Chernihiv as a gesture of goodwill toward peace talks and focus its battle on eastern Ukraine, including the Donbas, home to a pro-Russia separatist movement.
But in an overnight video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his compatriots to stay on alert.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results.
“We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” Zelenskyy said. “But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.”
Zelenskyy’s caution mirrored that of U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who said what mattered were Russia’s actions, not its words. Western officials warn that Moscow might simply be regrouping its forces and replenishing supplies in preparation for a renewed onslaught.
The Ukrainian military said the partial Russian retreat from Kyiv was “a rotation of individual units” to “mislead the military leadership” of Ukraine.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a Zelenskyy aide, said in televised remarks that Russia had left some of its forces near Kyiv to keep Ukrainian troops tied down and had moved others to the east to try to encircle Ukrainian fighters there. He said no Russian pullback had been detected around Chernihiv.
A British Ministry of Defense report released Wednesday described Russia’s proclaimed shift east as “likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance.”
“Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and supply,” the report said. “Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganizing its units in forward areas within Ukraine.”
Ukrainian troops have blocked Russians from entering the capital and the second-largest city of Kharkiv even as missiles have hit both urban areas almost daily, killing residents and destroying residential and military targets.
Southern and eastern regions have borne the brunt of the war. Satellite photos show vast swaths of the port city of Mariupol destroyed. Local officials say Russians occupy parts of the southeastern city as residents struggle to find water and food.
In a sign of the challenge of delivering humanitarian aid, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to keep open only three safe corridors. In recent weeks, the number of evacuation routes has at times been triple that. Vereshchuk said in a video update that Ukraine had requested an additional 97 safe passageways during Tuesday’s talks in Istanbul.
After the negotiations, Russia said it would consider a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy if there was a draft peace agreement.
Zelenskyy has indicated that he is open to declaring “neutral” status for Ukraine and giving up its goal to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukrainian negotiators said the matter could be put up for a national vote as long as Western allies, including the U.S., provided security guarantees in lieu of NATO membership. Ukraine also said it would consider negotiating the status of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Ukraine’s submission of proposals was a “positive factor” but that it was too early to declare any breakthrough. He told reporters that significant work still lay ahead.
Talks were originally scheduled to continue Wednesday but ended Tuesday after both sides indicated they had made progress. Representatives for the nations said their foreign ministries would continue communications.
The meeting was the fifth round of negotiations since the war launched nearly five weeks ago. It is unclear when additional discussions will take place.
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