Ukraine Accused of Strike Inside Russia as Talks Resume


LVIV, Ukraine — Shifting battlefield priorities and realities rippled across Ukraine on Friday as local forces claimed to have recaptured more territory, Moscow appeared to be redeploying some of its troops and a Russian official accused Ukrainian helicopters of attacking a fuel depot inside Russia’s borders.

While the fighting raged, Russian and Ukrainian officials met for a new round of peace talks and a new attempt was underway to spirit residents out of the shattered southern city of Mariupol. The Ukrainian chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had permission from both sides of the conflict to enter Mariupol to evacuate people eager to leave, but it was unclear whether the convoy would also be allowed to bring in much-needed humanitarian aid.

In a video message, the head of the Chernihiv region, north of the capital of Kyiv, said some Russian forces had begun to vacate the area, in some cases leaving behind mines that Ukrainian authorities were trying to detect and remove. Chernihiv Gov. Viacheslav Chaus warned that air and missile strikes were still possible.

“The enemy can act in any way,” he said. “It’s still too early for us to relax.”

Ukraine’s armed forces says its troops have retaken control of around 30 settlements in the north of the country near Chernihiv and Kyiv.

The Russian military had said earlier this week that it would “drastically” reduce its operations in the north in order to boost peace talks and concentrate on its campaign in the east, where pro-Moscow separatists have declared independence from Ukraine. But both Western and Ukrainian officials have cast doubt on that statement, suggesting that in reality the Kremlin wants to resupply and reposition its forces in the northern areas.

Despite five weeks of combat, invading troops have been unable to take major population centers such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, which have all come under heavy bombardment, including after Russia’s announcement of a reorientation of its forces.

In a potentially significant development, the Ukrainian military was accused of taking the fight briefly into Russian territory. The governor of the Russian city of Belgorod, about 20 miles north of the border with Ukraine, said that a pair of Ukrainian helicopter gunships had fired missiles at an oil depot, sparking a large blaze Friday morning, and that shells had been launched from a nearby Ukrainian village.

“The fire at the oil depot occurred as a result of an airstrike from two helicopters of the armed forces of Ukraine, which entered the territory of Russia at a low altitude,” Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on the messaging app Telegram.

Video posted on social media appeared to show the attack, and Russian media reported that some fuel tanks were ablaze, but Gladkov’s claim could not be independently confirmed. Officials in Ukraine — whose own energy facilities have been the frequent target of Russian strikes — said they would neither confirm nor deny the allegation.

“Ukraine is currently conducting a defensive operation against Russian aggression on the territory of Ukraine, and this does not mean that Ukraine is responsible for every catastrophe on Russia’s territory,” Ukrainian defense ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a news briefing, adding: “I will not confirm or deny these allegations.”

If substantiated, the cross-border raid would be Ukraine’s first incursion into Russian airspace since the invasion began Feb. 24, calling into question Moscow’s boast to have completely disabled Kyiv’s aerial capabilities. Ukrainian forces have had some success with drones, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly — and vainly — appealed to the U.S. and allied countries to supply his country with fighter jets.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the purported airstrike did not create “comfortable conditions” for the continuation of Russia-Ukraine talks, a new round of which began by video Friday.

Five previous negotiation sessions, including one in person in Istanbul earlier this week, have been inconclusive, with mixed messages emerging on whether they achieved any progress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on a trip to India, said the talks showed some promise and should continue, but Peskov earlier denied there had been any breakthroughs, and Western officials warn that the negotiations could be merely for show — a delaying tactic by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The diplomatic efforts have produced little relief for Mariupol, where weeks of relentless Russian pounding has laid waste to large sections of the city and left residents with little access to food, water, power and other essential supplies. Several agreements between Kyiv and Moscow to establish safe corridors for the evacuation of residents and delivery of aid have fallen apart.

“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva. “The situation is horrendous and deteriorating, and it’s now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”

Late Friday morning, a worker with the Red Cross in Ukraine said in a video posted on Twitter that “we are currently on the move from Zaporizhzhia to go to Mariupol in order to ensure safe passage for the civilians who desperately want to flee the city.”

Russia and Ukraine had agreed the day before to a temporary truce in the area to allow evacuations, but Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of reneging on the deal and blocking dozens of buses from ferrying residents to safety, as well as seizing 14 tons of food and medical supplies being sent in. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, said trying to leave remained “very dangerous.”

“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Andryushchenko wrote on Telegram, adding that Russian forces were “categorically not allowing any humanitarian cargo, even in small amounts, into the city.”

Although the strategic port city remains nominally under Ukrainian control, Russian troops have been reported throughout Mariupol. Destruction has been widespread, with at least $10 billion in damage to infrastructure, according to officials. Seizure of the city would be key to blocking Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and establishing a staging post for a westward push along the coast to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and Odesa on the Black Sea.

Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding hub about 80 miles east of Odesa, has already come under increasing fire. Ukrainian media said Friday that the death toll from a Russian strike that hit an administrative building there earlier in the week had risen to 28. The number could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian authorities also said Russian troops had mostly withdrawn from Chernobyl, outside of Kyiv, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in 1986. Russia had wrested control of the area early in the war, but has now apparently returned the decommissioned nuclear plant to Ukrainian management. Although the ruined facility no longer generates power, workers still conduct safety procedures to prevent radiation leaks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose chief intends to visit Chernobyl “as soon as possible,” has requested more information from Ukrainian authorities who say that some Russian troops were exposed to significant amounts of radiation at the site.

Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s leader, cautioned against any complacency over news that invading troops were being pulled back from some areas.

“We know their intentions,” he said late Thursday in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us. … There will be battles ahead.”

Although Western officials and observers have spoken of disarray, disorganization and disillusionment within Russian military ranks, Zelenskyy made a rare disclosure of dissension or problems within Ukraine’s forces. He said two generals had been stripped of their rank for violating “their military oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people.”

One of them was in charge of internal security at Ukraine’s principal intelligence agency and the other headed intelligence around the southern city of Kherson, the first officially to fall to Russian forces.

“Something prevented them from determining where their homeland was,” Zelenskyy said, without elaborating.

McDonnell reported from Lviv, Chu from London and Linthicum from Mexico City.