Ukraine conflict: Russia withdrawal pledge an attempt to 'mislead' says Zelensky and Western officials

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with officials from the US and UK, has expressed skepticism at Russia's announcement it will significantly scale back military operations near Ukraine's capital and a northern city.

Negotiations are expected to resume on Wednesday, five weeks into what has devolved into a bloody war of attrition, with thousands dead and almost 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.

However, Ukraine's military has said a Russian pledge to scale back military operations in two key areas is "probably a rotation of individual units and aims to mislead" with the UK saying Russia will be judged by actions not words

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It comes after Moscow announced it would "drastically reduce combat operations" around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv "to boost mutual trust"

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday night, March 29, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Addressing the nation in a video, Mr Zelensky said: "Yes, we can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive. But those signals don't silence the explosions of Russian shells.

"Of course we see the risks. Of course we don't see any basis for trusting the words voiced by those or other representatives of the state that is continuing to fight for our destruction."

"Ukrainians are not naive people," Mr Zelenskyy said. "Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results."

Ukraine's delegation at the conference, held in Istanbul, has laid out a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral and its security would be guaranteed by an array of other nations.

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Amid the talks, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow has decided to "fundamentally... cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv" to "increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations".

He did not immediately spell out what that would mean in practical terms.

The announcement was met with scepticism from the US and other nations as well as Ukraine.

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Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has warned that Russia’s announcement that it is scaling back operations around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, should be treated with caution.

Mr Raab told Sky News: “We judge the Russian military machine by its actions, not its words. There is obviously scepticism that it will regroup to attack again.

“The door to diplomacy will always be left ajar but I don’t think you can trust what is coming out of the mouth of Putin’s war machine.”

US President Joe Biden, asked whether the Russian announcement was a sign of progress in the talks or an attempt by Moscow to buy time to continue its assault, said: "We'll see. I don't read anything into it until I see what their actions are."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to "deceive people and deflect attention".

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US has detected small numbers of Russian ground forces moving away from the Kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, "not a real withdrawal"

The UK's Ministry of Defence said Russian units are being forced to return to Russia and Belarus to reorganise - and warned that reduced forces on the ground could mean more missile strikes.