KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's president said Wednesday that Russia must pull back to its pre-war positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he currently sees no willingness on the part of Russia to resume stalled negotiations on ending the three-month war.
Speaking by video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskyy expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear it too is ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”
"It’s possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say at least something, I mean pulling back troops to where they were before Feb. 24," the day Russia’s invasion began, he said. "I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make.”
Zelenskyy also made clear that Ukraine wants to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas.
“Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” he said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.
Russia, which has gradually narrowed its own military goals in Ukraine amid fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, might be playing for time, Zelenskyy added.
A regional governor in eastern Ukraine said that at least six civilians have been killed by the latest Russian shelling in a town at the epicenter of fighting.
Luhansk region Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday that another eight people have been wounded in the shelling of Sievierodonetsk over the past 24 hours. He accused the Russian troops of deliberately targeting shelters where civilians were hiding.
The town is located in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where Russian forces have been pressing their offensive despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swaths of territory. Sievierodonetsk and neighboring cities are the only part of the Donbas’ Luhansk region still under Ukrainian government control.
The head of the Donetsk region’s military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said two rockets which hit the town of Pokrovsk early Wednesday morning injured four civilians, who were treated in hospital.
One strike left a crater at least three meters (10 feet) deep, with the remnants of what appeared to be a rocket still smoldering. A row of low terraced houses near the strike suffered significant damage, with roofing tiles blown off, door frames ripped from the walls and chunks of concrete scattered around.
“There’s no place to live in left, everything is smashed,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother-of-two who lived in one of the terraced houses. The windows had been blown out by an earlier strike about a month ago, and they had replaced them with plastic sheeting. That, she said, probably saved their lives as at least there was no glass flying around.
Zelenskyy acknowledged late Tuesday that his country’s forces in the region faced a difficult situation.
“Practically the full might of the Russian army, whatever they have left, is being thrown at the offensive there,” he said in his nightly address to the nation. “Liman, Popasna, Sievierodonetsk, Slaviansk — the occupiers want to destroy everything there.”
In a further sign that Moscow is trying to bolster its stretched military machine in Ukraine, Russian lawmakers passed a bill which scraps the age limit of 40 for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.
The chair of the parliament’s defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand specialisms.” A description of the bill on the parliament website indicated older recruits could be suited to operate precision weapons or to serve in engineering or medical roles.
Russian authorities have said that only volunteer contract soldiers are sent to fight in Ukraine, although they have acknowledged that some conscripts were drawn into the fighting by mistake in the early stages.
Separately, President Putin has issued an order to allow a fast track to Russian citizenship for people in two southern regions of Ukraine which are largely held by Russian forces.
Putin’s decree, dated Wednesday, could allow Russia to strengthen its control over the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They form part of a land connection between eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin last week visited both regions and indicated they could become part of “our Russian family.” A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region has predicted the region could become part of Russia.
Russia already has a program for fast-track naturalization of people living in two regions of eastern Ukraine claimed by Russia-backed separatists.
British military experts, meanwhile, say a solution to getting wheat out of Ukraine for export doesn’t appear to be imminent.
Ukraine’s overland export routes are “highly unlikely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa, putting further pressure on global grain prices, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.
In an update posted Wednesday morning, it noted that there had been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.
The ministry says that the blockade, combined with the shortage of overland shipping routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and can’t be exported.
Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol has become functional after three months of fighting.
The military has completed clearing the port of land mines and it has been made fully operational, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday.
Russian forces have taken full control over Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, after the last Ukrainian defenders at the giant Azovstal seaside steel plant laid down their weapons.
Konashenkov said the Russian military had also used long-range air- and sea-launched missiles to destroy the production facilities of a key Ukrainian maker of aircraft engines, Motor Sich, in Zaporizhzhia.
The company specialized in helicopter engines, which were also used to equip the Russian helicopters before supplies were halted following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.