LVIV/ISTANBUL (REUTERS) – Air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine before dawn on Tuesday (March 29) as Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Turkey for the first face-to-face talks in nearly three weeks, with Kyiv seeking a ceasefire without compromising on territory or sovereignty.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed delegations from both sides saying that “stopping this tragedy” was up to them.
Ukrainian television reported the talks had begun with “a cold welcome” and no handshake between the delegations.
Ukraine and the United States hold little hope of an immediate breakthrough. But the resumption of face-to-face talks is an important first step towards a ceasefire in a Russian invasion that is stalled on most fronts but inflicting horrible suffering on civilians trapped in besieged cities.
More than a month into the war, the biggest attack on a European nation since World War Two, more than 3.8 million people have fled abroad, thousands have been killed and injured, and Russia’s economy has been pummelled by sanctions.
In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, nearly 5,000 people have been killed, including about 210 children, according to figures from the mayor. Such figures cannot be verified.
Survivors have told harrowing tales of people dying from lack of medical treatment, bodies being buried wherever space could be found, and women giving birth in basements.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said of the talks in Turkey: “We are not trading people, land or sovereignty.”
“The minimum programme will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum programme is reaching an agreement on a ceasefire,” he said on national television.
A senior US State Department official said Russian President Vladimir Putin did not appear ready to make compromises to end the war.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said talks so far had not yielded any substantial progress but it was important they continued in person.
He told reporters on a conference call that it would become clear either on Tuesday or Wednesday if the peace talks were promising.
Footage from inside the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul where the talks took place showed Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in attendance, though it was not immediately clear in what role.
Three sources confirmed the unexpected attendance of Mr Abramovich, who had already visited the country since the war began and has two of his superyachts docked at Turkish resorts.
Mr Abramovich appears to have tried to act as a go-between, including during a trip to Ukraine early in the conflict when he and several Ukrainian negotiators are said to have fallen ill.
The Kremlin has said Mr Abramovich played an early role in peace talks but that the process was now up to negotiating teams. Sitting next to Erdogan’s spokesman at the talks, Mr Abramovich adjusted his headphones to listen to the president’s speech, TV showed.
The Kremlin on Tuesday dismissed reports that the Russian billionaire had been poisoned, saying they were untrue and part of an “information war”.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said that Mr Abramovich was not an official member of the Russian delegation at talks with Ukraine in Turkey, but that he was present at them.
Countrywide air raid sirens across Ukraine were the latest sign of Russia’s increasing reliance on long-range strikes, hitting targets far from front lines to try to cripple Ukrainian supply lines.