KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s military forces blasted Ukraine’s capital region and other major cities Wednesday as they tried to crush a Ukrainian defense that has frustrated their progress nearly three weeks after invading, while the two countries signaled some optimism for negotiations to end the war.
With Russia’s ground advance on Kyiv stalled despite the sustained bombardment, statements from the two sides suggested room for their talks to make progress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” at the “businesslike” talks, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s demands for ending the war as becoming “more realistic.”
Zelenskyy said Russian forces had been unable to move deeper into Ukrainian territory but had continued their heavy shelling of cities. Kyiv residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russia rained shells on areas in and around the city. A 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.
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“Efforts are still needed, patience is needed,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “Any war ends with an agreement.”
British and U.S. intelligence assessments supported the Ukrainian leader’s view of the fighting, saying Russian ground forces remained about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the center of Kyiv.
Hopes for diplomatic progress rose after Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Ukraine realized it could not join NATO, his most explicit acknowledgment that the goal, enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution, was unlikely to be met. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia, something the Western military alliance denies.
Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”
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“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said Wednesday on Russian channel RBK TV. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”
Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides were discussing a possible compromise idea for a future Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.
Prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough were highly uncertain, however, with a gulf between Ukraine’s demand that the invading forces withdraw completely and Russia’s suspected war aim of replacing Kyiv’s Westward-looking government with pro-Moscow leadership.
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Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak denied Russian claims Ukraine was open to adopting a model of neutrality comparable to Sweden or Austria’s. Podolyak said on Telegram that Ukraine needed powerful allies and “clearly defined security guarantees” to keep it safe.
There was no immediate prospect of an end to the fighting that has upended Europe’s post-Cold War security order, driven millions from their homes in Ukraine and turned large parts of the country into war zones.
The U.N. says the number of people fleeing Ukraine amid Europe’s heaviest fighting since World War II has passed 3 million. The U.N.’s human rights body says 691 civilians have been killed and 1,143 injured, but acknowledges those numbers were likely an undercount.
Zelenskyy was preparing to make a direct appeal for more help Wednesday in a rare speech by a foreign leader to the U.S. Congress, with President Joe Biden set to announce $800 million in new military assistance to Ukraine, according to a White House official.
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While making limited progress in gaining ground amid stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have increased their bombardment of Kyiv and other cities.
The artillery shrapnel that hit the 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv on Wednesday obliterated the top floor and ignited a fire that sent plumes of smoke over the area. Residents carried possessions and pets from the building as firefighters doused the flames amid a sea of rubble. The Kyiv emergencies agency said there were two victims, without saying if they were injured or killed.
Kyiv regional leader Oleksiy Kuleba said Russian forces had intensified fighting in the Kyiv suburbs, notably around the town of Bucha in the northwest and a highway leading west. He said 12 towns around Kyiv were reported to be without water and six without heat.
Across the capital region, “kindergartens, museums, churches, residential blocks and engineering infrastructure are suffering from the endless firing,” Kuleba said.
He said Russian troops were trying to cut off transportation links to the capital and to destroy logistical capabilities while planning a wide-ranging attack to seize the capital.
Russian forces succeeded in occupying the city of Ivankiv, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Kyiv, and control the surrounding region on the border with Belarus, Kuleba said.
In addition to airstrikes and shelling by ground forces, Russian naval ships fired overnight on a town south of Mariupol on the Azov Sea and another near Odesa on the Black Sea, according to local officials.
Ukraine also appeared to have successes, with satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showing helicopters and vehicles ablaze at the Russian-held Kherson International Airport and Air Base after a suspected Ukrainian strike on Tuesday.
Zelenskyy’s office said Ukrainian forces thwarted Russian efforts to enter Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which was pounded by almost non-stop strikes over the last 24 hours. A powerful explosion thundered across the city overnight.
Hospital workers in the city found themselves on two frontlines, battling COVID-19 in intensive care units as war raged outside. Air raid sirens go off multiple times daily, forcing fragile patients into the the Kharkiv Regional Clinical Infectious Diseases Hospital’s makeshift bomb shelter, the hospital’s director, Dr. Pavel Nartov, said.
“Bombing takes place from morning into night. Thank god a bomb has not yet hit our hospital. But it could hit at any time,” Nartov told The Associated Press.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Russian forces destroyed 111 Ukrainian aircraft, 160 drones and more than 1,000 tanks or other military vehicles since the start of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Russian military’s daily public statements on the war focus almost exclusively on fighting in the separatist-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and on Ukrainian military targets, without acknowledging attacks on civilians.
Some relief came to the besieged southern city of Mariupol as 20,000 people managed to escape Tuesday in 4,000 vehicles, according to Zelenskyy’s office.
Mariupol, a strategic port city of 430,000 on the Sea of Azov, has been surrounded by Russian troops for two weeks and endured heavy shelling that local officials say has killed more than 2,300 people and left residents struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk expressed dismay Wednesday at reports that Russian forces had taken hundreds of people hostage at a hospital in Mariupol. She said the Russians were using the hospital as a firing position.
Regional leader Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russian troops forced about 400 people from nearby homes into the Regional Intensive Care Hospital and were using them and roughly 100 patients and staff as human shields by not allowing them to leave.
Kyrylenko said shelling had already heavily damaged the hospital’s main building, but medical staff have treated patients in makeshift wards in the basement.
Doctors from other Mariupol hospitals made a video to tell the world about the horrors they’ve been seeing. “We don’t want to be heroes and martyrs posthumously,” one woman said. She also said it was insufficient to refer to the patients being treated as wounded: “It’s torn off arms and legs, gouged out eyes, bodies torn into fragments, insides falling out.”
As the West tried to bolster Ukraine’s defenses while ratcheting up sanctions on Russia, defense ministers from NATO member nations met in Brussels on Wednesday ahead of an emergency summit of the military alliance next week.
Meanwhile the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia returned to Poland on Wednesday after a risky visit to Kyiv meant to show support for Ukraine. They went ahead with the hours-long train trip despite worries within the European Union about the security risks.