Even as Russia continues a relentless missile attack on Ukraine’s power system as winter approaches, the Kremlin is apparently walking back its earlier goals to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government in its faltering invasion.
On Monday, a Kremlin official said the “special operation” in Ukraine ordered by President Vladimir Putin nine months ago is not demanding regime change in Kyiv.
“No, the president has spoken about this already,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to TASS, the official Russian news agency, without citing a precedent.
Shortly after Russian tanks rolled across the border in February 2022, Mr. Putin called on the Ukrainian military to oust Mr. Zelenskyy, calling the leadership in Kyiv corrupt and essentially denying that Ukraine, once a key part of the Soviet Union, had a right to exist as a country independent of Russia.
“Take power into your own hands. It will be easier for us to agree with you than this gang of junkies and neo-Nazis,” Mr. Putin told a meeting of the Russian Security Council in Moscow then.
The Kremlin admission Monday could make possible direct cease-fire talks marginally easier, although Kyiv has been in no mood for concessions as its military forces have scored major gains in recent months.
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Mr. Zelenskyy told the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday that Russia is interested in a temporary truce only because it will give them the opportunity to regain strength so it can continue operations in Ukraine. Such a respite would only worsen the situation, Mr. Zelenskyy said.
“Any voiced ideas of our land’s concessions or of our sovereignty cannot be called peace. Immoral compromises will lead to new blood,” he told the forum. “A truly real, long-lasting and honest peace can only be the result of complete demolition of Russian aggression.”
In Washington Monday, a top State Department official said the U.S. had seen mounting evidence that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a systematic pattern of war crimes committed in every region where Moscow’s forces have operated. In a briefing on Monday, Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, said the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine is a clear violation of the U.N. Charter.
“We have reports of citizens being killed ‘execution-style’ with their hands bound. We have bodies that show signs of torture,” Ms. Van Schaack told a press briefing. “We have horrific accounts of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, against women and children.”
She said Ukraine’s Office of Prosecutor General has identified thousands of incidents that may constitute war crimes.
“And all of this is without yet knowing what is unfolding in areas that are still under Russia’s occupation or control,” she said. “We expect that additional evidence will continue to mount as these areas are liberated.”
Last week, the Ukraine Conflict Observatory, an NGO supported by the State Department, released a report that details the experiences of more than 220 people who were either victims or witnesses to “numerous” instances of torture, detentions, and disappearances in Kherson, the regional capital that Ukrainian forces reclaimed last week.
“Survivors and witnesses identified at least five individuals who died as a result of their mistreatment in detention,” the State Department said in a statement.
According to the report, most of the victims in Kherson were detained by Russia’s military or Federal Security Service (FSB) rather than local forces aligned with Moscow, and more than half were apprehended while at home. Analysts said Russia had already identified people it intended to round up prior to the invasion. They said the U.S. government had “credible” information that Russian forces were creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation.
“There is substantial evidence that the overwhelming majority of those subjected to these abuses are civilians. Only nine of 226 individuals were accused of joining or claimed to have joined the armed resistance to Russia’s forces at the beginning of the war,” according to the report.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the revelations only underscore the stakes in the fight to defend Ukraine.
“If we allow Putin to win, all of us will have to pay a much higher price. Authoritarian regimes around the world will learn that they can get what they want with brute force,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This would have direct consequences for our security. It would make the world more dangerous and us more vulnerable.”
Russia continued its shelling of Ukrainian cities, though at a much reduced pace compared to a week ago. At least four civilians were killed and eight more wounded in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, Kyiv officials told the Associated Press. A Russian missile strike in the northeast Kharkiv region on Sunday night killed one person and wounded two as it hit a residential building in the village of Shevchenkove, according to the region’s governor.
In a rare bit of positive news, inspectors for the U.N.’s watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency reported that heavy weekend shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, had not damaged key equipment and they had identified no nuclear safety concerns.
The six reactors, which are all shut down, are stable, and the integrity of spent and fresh fuel, along with stored radioactive waste, was confirmed, the IAEA told AP.
– This article was based in part on wire service reports.