KYIV, March 30 — Russia pledged to scale down fighting around two Ukrainian cities including Kyiv following peace talks yesterday, but the United States led a chorus of sharp scepticism over Moscow’s intentions.

The talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul raised hopes after more than a month of war that has left thousands dead, and prompted negotiators to suggest a meeting between the two presidents.

On the ground the violence was still having a devastating impact, as Ukraine said at least nine people were killed and 28 wounded yesterday by a Russian airstrike on a government building in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

Following the talks in Turkey though, Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said there were “sufficient” conditions for President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to meet in a bid to end Europe’s worst conflict in decades.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said there had been progress in talks on “the neutrality and non-nuclear status of Ukraine”.

“A decision has been made to radically, by several times reduce the military activity” around the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv, he said.

Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said there had been a “meaningful discussion” at the talks.

But the United States immediately cast doubt on Moscow’s words, and Western leaders vowed to keep “raising the costs” on Russia for its invasion.

Offensive planned elsewhere?

US officials said that while a small number of Russian forces were stepping back from Kyiv, the vast majority of its positions remained.

“We’re not prepared to call this a retreat or even a withdrawal,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

“We all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine... It does not mean that the threat to Kyiv is over.”

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined in the distrust, saying: “We will judge Putin and his regime by his actions and not by his words”.

US President Joe Biden meanwhile spoke with Johnson and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy as they sought to harden their unified stance against Moscow.

“The leaders affirmed their determination to continue raising costs on Russia for its brutal attacks in Ukraine as well as to continue supplying Ukraine with security assistance,” the White House said in a readout of the call.

Following yesterday's announcements, European and US stock markets lifted and oil prices fell by five per cent as supply fears eased, while the ruble surged 10 per cent against the dollar.

Hours earlier a Russian strike against the regional government headquarters in Mykolaiv left nine dead, officials said, adding to a toll estimated by Zelensky at 20,000 so far.

“I was having breakfast in my apartment,” Donald, 69, a retired Canadian postal worker with Ukrainian residency told AFP. “I heard a whoosh, then a boom and my windows rattled.”

Another local resident, Viktor Gaivonenko, who was helping clean up the debris, said: “Putin is a bastard. That’s all there is to it”.

Ukraine’s fighters pushed back Russian forces from around the city in recent days and have recaptured territory in other parts of the country, including the suburban town of Irpin outside Kyiv — an important gateway to the capital.

‘Crime against humanity’

In response to the invasion, the West has imposed crushing economic sanctions and many companies have exited Russia.

There have also been several rounds of diplomatic expulsions, which continued yesterday with Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands announcing a total of 42 diplomats would be expelled.

Russia has hit back against Western sanctions, saying its gas deliveries to the European Union must now be paid for in rubles.

“Nobody will supply gas for free. This is just impossible. And it can only be paid in rubles,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia also said it was expelling 10 diplomats from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a tit-for-tat move.

While Ukraine’s forces are counterattacking in the north, they are struggling to retain control of the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

Russian forces have encircled the city and are conducting steady and indiscriminate bombardment, trapping an estimated 160,000 people with little food, water or medicine.

At least 5,000 people there have already died, according to one senior Ukrainian official who estimated the real toll may be closer to 10,000.

Zelensky said the Russian siege constituted a “crime against humanity, which is happening in front of the eyes of the whole planet in real time”.

As he opened the Russia-Ukraine talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the delegations to “put an end to this tragedy”.

Russian oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, who has been hit by Western sanctions, was also in attendance.

The Kremlin said he was acting as an intermediary and denied reports he had been poisoned during previous talks in Ukraine.

UN nuclear visit

Ukraine’s foreign ministry called the Mariupol situation “catastrophic,” saying Russia’s assault from land, sea and air had turned a city once home to 450,000 people “into dust”.

France, Greece and Turkey are hoping to launch a mass evacuation of civilians from Mariupol within days, according to Macron.

But the French president, after speaking with Putin yesterday, said conditions for such an operation were not yet met.

Biden has expressed his “moral outrage” at the conduct of the war, and ruffled feathers recently by suggesting Putin could not remain in power. He has since denied seeking regime change in Russia as US policy.

The conflict has raised fears over nuclear safety after Russia seized several facilities, including Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN atomic watchdog, was visiting Ukraine yesterday.

“We must act now to help prevent the danger of a nuclear accident,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said on Twitter.  — AFP