Ukrainian soldiers drive tank in Pokrovsk, Donetsk

Zelenskyy says Russia must withdraw to pre-war positions before diplomatic talks

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — 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 as it focuses its fire on key regions in the east three months into the war.

Speaking by video link at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Volodymyr 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.”

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“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.

Attending the Davos forum in person, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the situation in his country’s eastern Donbas region was “extremely bad.”

He called for friendly countries — particularly the United States — to provide the Ukrainian military with multiple launch rocket systems so they could try to recapture territory

“Every day of someone sitting in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and considering whether they should or should not do something, costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.

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 situation is serious,” he said in written comments in response to questions from The Associated Press. “The city is constantly being shelled with every possible weapon in the enemy’s possession.”

Sievierodonetsk is located in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where Russian forces have been pressing their offensive despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.

Ukrainian forces continue to hold the city, but a key supply route is coming under pressure, Haidai said.

Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swaths of territory.

Sievierodonetsk and the nearby city of Lysychansk are the largest remaining settlements held by Ukraine in the Luhansk region, of which Haidai is the Kyiv-backed governor. The region is “more than 90 percent” controlled by Russia, he said.

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The road between Lysychansk and the city of Bakhmut to the south-west is widely considered crucial to keeping Ukrainian troops in the area supplied. Haidai said it was “constantly being shelled” and that Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams were approaching the area.

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.

“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.

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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.

Elena Becatoros in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, and Jamey Keaten in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.

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