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Russia's vow to scale down military activity near Ukraine capital met with skepticism by U.S.

Russia announced Tuesday it will significantly scale back military operations near Ukraine's capital and a northern city, as the outlines of a possible deal to end the grinding war came into view at the latest round of talks.

Ukraine, Russia teams meet in Turkey, as Ukrainian forces regain control in Irpin

The latest:

  • Russia says it will cut back operations near Ukraine capital following peace talks in Turkey.
  • Ukraine lays out frameworks for peace deal, Biden holds call with European leaders.
  • Ukrainian forces seize back control of Kyiv suburb of Irpin, northeastern town of Trostyanets, officials say.
  • What questions do you have about Russia's assault on Ukraine? Send them in an email to ask@cbc.ca.

Russia announced Tuesday it will significantly scale back military operations near Ukraine's capital and a northern city, as the outlines of a possible deal to end the grinding war came into view at the latest round of talks.

Ukraine's delegation at the negotiations, held in Istanbul, laid out a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.

Moscow's public reaction was positive, and the talks are expected to resume on Wednesday, five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost four million Ukrainians fleeing the country.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said only a concrete result from the talks can be trusted.

"We can say the signals we are receiving from the talks are positive but they do not drown out the explosions of Russian shells," he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian and Ukrainian delegations ahead of the peace talks at Dolmabahce Presidential Office in Istanbul on Tuesday. (Arda Kucukkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Zelensky said it was Ukrainian troops who forced Russia's hand, adding that "we shouldn't ease our guard" because the invading army still "has a great potential to continue attacks against our country."

Ukraine will continue negotiations, he said, but officials do not trust the word of the country that continues "fighting to destroy us."

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said the moves concerning Kyiv and Chernihiv were meant "to increase trust" in talks aimed at ending fighting, as negotiators met face-to-face after several rounds of failed negotiations. He did not immediately spell out what that would mean in practical terms.

The announcement was met with skepticism from the U.S. and others.

While Russia portrayed the step as a goodwill gesture, it comes as the Kremlin's troops have become bogged down in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance that has thwarted President Vladimir Putin's hopes for a quick military victory.

Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to lower its war aims, saying its "main goal" now is gaining control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden, asked whether the Russian announcement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue its assault, said: "We'll see. I don't read anything into it until I see what their actions are."

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Ukraine's security proposal includes Canada

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In peace talks Tuesday, Ukraine floated the idea of being a non-NATO neutral country with third-country security guarantors, including Canada. Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at think-tank Defense Priorities, explained to the CBC's Andrew Nichols how that could work.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to "deceive people and deflect attention."

Western officials say Moscow is reinforcing troops in the Donbas in a bid to encircle Ukraine's forces. And Russia's deadly siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombarded cities.

"There is what Russia says and there is what Russia does, and we're focused on the latter," Blinken said in Morocco. "And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine."

Rob Lee, a military expert at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted of the Russian announcement: "This sounds like more of an acknowledgement of the situation around Kyiv where Russia's advance has been stalled for weeks and Ukrainian forces have had recent successes. Russia doesn't have the forces to encircle the city."

The meeting in Istanbul was the first time negotiators from Russia and Ukraine talked face-to-face in two weeks. Earlier talks were held in person in Belarus or by video.

Even as negotiators gathered, Putin's forces blasted a gaping hole in a nine-storey government administration building in a strike on the southern port city of Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people, emergency authorities said. The search for more bodies in the rubble continued.

"It's terrible. They waited for people to go to work," before striking the building, said regional governor Vitaliy Kim. "I overslept. I'm lucky."

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U.S. President Joe Biden held a call with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom to discuss Ukraine developments.

"We'll see if they follow through on what they're suggesting," Biden said at a White House event, in response to a question about Russia's intentions.

Biden said the U.S. would continue to pressure Russia through sanctions while providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Ukraine's team, meanwhile, set out a detailed framework for a peace deal under which the country would remain neutral but its security would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including Canada, the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland, in an arrangement similar to NATO's "an attack on one is an attack on all" principle.

"What it means specifically for Canada and the others is hard to tell," said Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, "but it looks to me like a defence commitment to come to the defence of Ukraine if it is attacked, not only materially, but in terms of deploying soldiers."

Menon said in an interview with CBC News that Ukraine would want such an agreement ratified by all of the countries' parliaments, and put to a vote in Ukraine. And he said if Russia's key demand is that Ukraine be left out of NATO, this could be packaged as "a win" for Putin. 

WATCH | U.S. is skeptical of Russia's pledge to scale back attacks on Kyiv: 

Skepticism for Russia’s pledge to scale back attacks on Kyiv

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In the latest round of peace talks, Russia promised to radically reduce its attacks on Ukraine’s capital — a pledge met with skepticism by U.S. President Joe Biden and military analysts.

Ukraine said it would also be willing to hold talks over a 15-year period on the future of the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized by Russia in 2014, with both countries agreeing not to use their armed forces to resolve the issue in the meantime.

Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Kremlin delegation in Turkey, said on state-run RT that Russia sees Ukrainian proposals made in Istanbul as a "step to meet us halfway, a clearly positive fact."

He added that the two parties have a long way to go to reach an agreement.

Firefighters carry a dead body from the rubble of the government building hit by rocket fire in Mykolaiv on Tuesday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow has demanded, among other things that Ukraine drop any hope of joining the NATO alliance, which it sees as a threat.

Ukrainian opposition MP Inna Sovsun expressed pessimism about Russia's intentions in an interview with CBC News before talks had concluded.

"We do not trust the idea that 'neutrality' will bring us peace, long-lasting peace," said Sovsun, citing what she said were broken Russian promises after it seized Crimea in 2014.

WATCH | Ukraine needs security guarantees, lawmaker says::

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Ukrainian opposition MP Inna Sovsun says a negotiated end to the war must include real security guarantees and cannot allow Russia to take part of the country.

Roman Abramovich, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was in the room in Istanbul. The Chelsea Football Club owner has been serving as an unofficial mediator approved by both countries — but mystery about his role has been deepened by reports that he may have been poisoned during an earlier round of talks. Russia has dismissed the allegations as fanciful.

Over the past several days, Ukrainian forces have mounted counterattacks and reclaimed ground on the outskirts of Kyiv and other areas.

Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a trench for photos with Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said that Ukraine had retaken control of a vast majority of Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital that has seen heavy fighting.

"We defend our motherland because we have very high morale," said Syrskyi, the commander in charge of the defence of Kyiv. "And because we want to win."

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As well as Irpin, Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of Russian occupation that has left a landscape devastated by war.

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country's nuclear facilities. Russian forces have taken control of the decommissioned Chornobyl plant, site in 1986 of the world's worst nuclear accident, and of the active Zaporizhzhia plant, where a building was damaged in fighting.

Ukraine's military said Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war, with most of the damage concentrated near Kyiv and in the east.

A worker watches an excavator clearing the rubble of a government building hit by Russian rockets in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv on Tuesday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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