Another round of talks aimed at stopping the war in Ukraine is scheduled for Tuesday as the fighting looks increasingly like a stalemate on the ground, with the two sides trading control of a town in the east and a suburb of the capital.

Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, northwest of Kyviv, from Russian troops, who were regrouping to take the area back, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday as he sought to rally the country.

“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “We can't express our emotions now. We can't raise expectations, simply so that we don't burn out.”

Ahead of the talks, to be held in Istanbul, the Ukrainian president said his country is prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and is open to compromise on the fate of the Donbas, the contested region in the country's east.

‘Liberated’ from Russian forces

As fighting raged throughout the country, the mayor of Irpin, which has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, said that the city had been “liberated” from Russian forces. A senior US defense official said the US believes the Ukrainians have also retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in the east.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss US intelligence assessments, said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near the capital, Kyiv, and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

Ukraine‘s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukraine‘s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

The official said Russia appeared to be de-emphasising ground operations near Kyiv and concentrating more on the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for the past eight years.

Late last week, with its forces bogged down in parts of the country, Russia seemed to scale back its war aims, saying its main goal was gaining control of the Donbas. While that suggested a possible face-saving exit strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it also raised Ukrainian fears that the Kremlin intends to split the country in two and force it to surrender a swath of its territory.

Cyber attack

Meanwhile, a cyberattack knocked Ukraine's national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom almost completely offline. The chief of Ukraine's state service for special communication, Yurii Shchyhol, blamed “the enemy" without specifically naming Russia and said most customers were cut off from telephone, internet and mobile service so that coverage could continue for Ukraine's military.

Also Monday, an oil depot in western Ukraine's Rivne region was hit by a missile attack, the governor said. It was the second attack on oil facilities in the region near the Polish border. In recent days, Ukrainian troops have pushed the Russians back in other sectors.

In the city of Makariv, near a strategic highway west of the capital, Associated Press reporters saw the carcass of a Russian rocket launcher, a burned Russian truck, the body of a Russian soldier and a destroyed Ukrainian tank after fighting there a few days ago.

A view shows an armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict on a road leading to the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 28, 2022. 

A view shows an armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict on a road leading to the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 28, 2022. 

In the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, the AP witnessed positions abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers who had moved farther west, but no sign of Russian troops. And on Friday, the US defense official said the Russians were no longer in full control of Kherson, the first major city to fall to Moscow's forces. The Kremlin denied it had lost full control of the southern city.

No to NATO

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining NATO, which Moscow sees as a threat. Zelenskyy, for his part, has stressed that Ukraine needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.

Over the weekend, Zelenskyy said he is ready to agree to neutrality. He also said that “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt,” while suggesting at the same time that compromise might be possible over “the complex issue of Donbas.”

The Ukrainian leader has suggested as much before but rarely commented so extensively. That could create momentum for the talks, for which the Russian delegates arrived in Istanbul on Monday, Turkish media reported. Still, it was not clear how a compromise on the Donbas would square with maintaining Ukraine's territorial integrity.

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