Ukraine talks to resume; Kremlin calls Biden remarks “alarming”

But the fact that they were taking place in person at all - for the first time since an acrimonious meeting between foreign ministers on March 10 - was a sign of shifts behind the scenes as Russia's invasion has become bogged down.

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LVIV, Ukraine/ANKARA, – Ukraine and Russia were preparing on Monday for the first face-to-face peace talks in more than two weeks, with Kyiv insisting it would make no concessions on ceding territory as battlefield momentum has shifted in its favor.

Ukrainian officials played down the chances of a major breakthrough at the talks, due to be held in Istanbul after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday.

But the fact that they were taking place in person at all – for the first time since an acrimonious meeting between foreign ministers on March 10 – was a sign of shifts behind the scenes as Russia’s invasion has become bogged down.

On the ground, there was no sign of respite for civilians in besieged cities, especially the devastated port of Mariupol, whose mayor said 160,000 people were still trapped inside and Russia was blocking attempts to evacuate them.

The Kremlin, for its part, said it was alarmed by comments by U.S. President Joe Biden, who said during a speech on Saturday that President Vladimir Putin must not remain in power.

Russia and Ukraine said their delegations would arrive in Turkey on Monday, with the talks expected to start on Tuesday.

Ukrainian officials have recently suggested Russia could now be more willing to compromise, as any hope it may have held of imposing a new government on Kyiv slipped away in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance and heavy Russian losses.

Russia’s military signalled last week it was shifting focus to concentrate on expanding territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, a month after having committed the bulk of its huge invasion force to a failed assault on Kyiv.

When the sides last met in person, Ukraine accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of ignoring its pleas to discuss a ceasefire, while Lavrov said a halt to fighting was not even on the agenda.

Since then, they have repeatedly met via video link, rather than face to face. Both sides have publicly discussed a formula under which Ukraine might accept some kind of formal neutral status. But neither has budged over Russia’s territorial demands, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and eastern territories known as the Donbas, which Moscow demands Kyiv cede to separatists.

“I don’t think there will be any breakthrough on the main issues,” Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said on Monday.

In an interview with Russian journalists at the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy mentioned some form of compromise involving Donbas, although he did not suggest this might involve ceding the territory. In his latest comments overnight he made clear that “territorial integrity” remained Kyiv’s priority.

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