By James Mackenzie and Natalia Zinets
KYIV/LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian bombs rained down on Ukrainian cities on Wednesday, a Ukrainian official said, despite talk of compromise in peace talks by both Moscow and kyiv after three weeks of war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was ready to discuss its neighbor’s neutral status but would still achieve the goals of its operation, which he said was “going according to plan.”
But Putin acknowledged that Western sanctions imposed on Russia in response to his actions were hurting.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden called Putin a “war criminal.” The United States is not seeing Russia taking any steps that would suggest progress in talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Earlier, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said talks between Moscow and kyiv were becoming “more realistic” and Russia’s foreign minister said the proposals under discussion were “close to an agreement.”
On the 21st day of the conflict, Russian forces continued their shelling of the defeated cities, including intensified shelling of the capital kyiv.
The US embassy in kyiv said Russian forces shot dead 10 people waiting in line to buy bread in Chernihiv, northeast of kyiv. Images from the Ukrainian state broadcaster showed bodies lying on the street. Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said it had opened an investigation.
Russia denied the attack and said the incident was a hoax.
The emergency service said rescue teams found the bodies of five people, including three children, during searches of shell-hit residential buildings in Chernihiv.
In the defeated southern port of Mariupol, the city council said Russian forces shelled a theater where civilians were sheltering. The number of victims was unknown.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied carrying out an airstrike on the theater. Reuters was unable to independently verify the information.
The governor of the Zaporizhzhia region said Russian forces had fired artillery at a convoy of evacuees from Mariupol, wounding five people. Ukraine’s military said children were among the victims.
Three people were killed and five injured after shelling sparked a fire at a market in eastern Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, emergency services said.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 400 employees and patients were being held hostage in a hospital that Russian forces had captured in Mariupol on Tuesday.
Moscow denies targeting civilians.
kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Russian shelling started a fire and damaged private homes and a gas line there on Wednesday night after the early morning shelling.
Russian troops halted at the gates of the capital after suffering heavy losses and failing to seize any major cities in a war that Western officials say Moscow hoped to win within days.
In an address to the US Congress via video link, Zelenskiy called for tougher sanctions against Russia and more weapons to help his country.
He invoked the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and cited Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“In the darkest moment for our country, for all of Europe, I ask you to do more,” said Zelenskiy, who showed videos of children killed and injured and buildings destroyed.
The White House said Biden had not changed his opposition to a no-fly zone, something military experts said would be tantamount to the United States entering the war against Russia.
But he did offer an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine. This included 800 anti-aircraft systems “to make sure that the Ukrainian military can continue to stop the planes and helicopters that have been attacking its people,” Biden said.
NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels also pledged more arms supplies to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion.
The talks were due to be presented Wednesday via video link for the third day in a row. Zelenskiy said overnight that the positions already sounded “more realistic.”
The Kremlin said negotiators were discussing a status for Ukraine similar to that of Austria or Sweden, both members of the European Union that are outside the NATO military alliance.
Ukraine’s chief negotiator said that kyiv continued to demand a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, with guarantees.
The signs of compromise sent relief through global financial markets.
In what was seen as a major change, Zelenskiy had said on Tuesday that Ukraine could accept international security guarantees that fell short of its long-standing goal of joining NATO.
Keeping Ukraine out of the Western military alliance was one of Russia’s main demands before unleashing what it calls a “special operation” to disarm its neighbor.
“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed along with, of course, security guarantees,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “There are absolutely specific formulations that, in my opinion, are close to agreement.”
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s top negotiator, told state television: “Ukraine offers an Austrian or Swedish version of a demilitarized neutral state, but at the same time a state with its own army and navy.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the idea “could really be seen as a compromise.”
Austria and Sweden, the largest of the EU’s six non-NATO members, have small armies that cooperate with the alliance.
Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said kyiv was seeking direct talks between Zelenskiy and Putin. Moscow has said they could meet, but only to finalize an already worked out deal.
While Russia has long opposed Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, kyiv and its allies have said Moscow’s real goal was to topple Ukraine’s pro-Western elected leaders.
THREE MILLION REFUGEES
Still, the Ukrainian forces have withstood the assault of a much larger army. Zelenskiy said that Ukrainian troops had killed a fourth major Russian general. Reuters was unable to verify this.
Ukraine said some 20,000 people had fled defeated Mariupol in cars, but hundreds of thousands remain trapped under shelling without heat, electricity or water. More than 3 million refugees have fled from Ukraine to other countries.
Russia was due to pay $117 million in interest on dollar-denominated sovereign bonds but may pay in rubles, marking its first foreign debt default since the Bolshevik revolution. Moscow said it had the money and Washington would be to blame if it can’t pay.
In his most explicit acknowledgment of the pain inflicted by Western sanctions, Putin said inflation and unemployment would rise and structural changes to the economy would be needed.
(Reuters Office Report; Writing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan, Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Philippa Fletcher and Grant McCool)