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Biden meets Ukraine ministers as Russia signals scaled down goals

US President Joe Biden met top Ukrainian ministers in an emphatic show of support Saturday, as Russia signalled it may scale down its war aims after failing to break Kyiv’s resistance in a month of fighting and deadly attacks on civilians.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov made a rare trip out of Ukraine to meet with the US leader, in a possible sign of growing confidence in their fightback against Russian forces.

The talks discussed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

Biden, who later met Polish President Andrzej Duda, also stressed the “sacred commitment” to NATO’s collective defence, in a clear reassurance to Ukraine’s neighbours rattled by the conflict.

The US president has been leading efforts among Western allies to press Vladimir Putin to end his invasion of Ukraine, branding the Russian president a “war criminal” over the assaults on civilians.

Putin had sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, vowing to destroy the country’s military and topple pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelensky.

But his army has made little progress on capturing key cities, and its attacks on civilians have become more deadly.

In a surprise statement, Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian general, suggested the time had come for a considerably reduced “main goal” of controlling Donbas, an eastern region already partly held by Russian proxies.

The apparent scaling down of ambitions came as a Western official reported that a seventh Russian general, Lieutenant General Yakov Rezanstev, had died in Ukraine and that a colonel had been “deliberately” killed by his own demoralised men.

Complicating Moscow’s challenges, invading troops were facing a counteroffensive in Kherson, the only major Ukrainian city under Russian control.

Zelensky pressed on with his relentless diplomatic efforts to rally world leaders to his side, this time taking his message to the Doha Forum meeting in Qatar’s capital.

He accused Russia of fuelling a dangerous arms race by “bragging” about its nuclear stocks, and urged Qatar to help by preventing Moscow from deploying energy as a weapon.

“I ask you to increase the output of energy to ensure that everyone in Russia understands that no one can use energy as a weapon to blackmail the world,” Zelensky said.

– ‘Everybody’s shooting’ –

Russia’s far-bigger military continued to combat determined Ukrainian defenders who are using Western-supplied weapons — from near the capital Kyiv to Kharkiv, the Donbas region and the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

A humanitarian convoy leaving Mariupol, including ambulances carrying wounded children, was being held up at Russian checkpoints, a Ukrainian official said.

A buildup of several kilometres had formed close to Vassylivka, in the region of Zaporizhzhia where the convoy was headed, said Lyudmyla Denisova, in charge of human rights in Ukraine.

“The ambulances carrying wounded children are also queueing. The people have been deprived of water and food for two days,” she wrote on Telegram, blasting Russian troops for “creating obstacles”.

Authorities had said they fear some 300 civilians in Mariupol may have died in a Russian air strike on a theatre being used as a bomb shelter last week.

The theatre was targeted despite the word “children” being written large in Russian on the ground outside, so as to be visible to pilots.

Russian forces hammering Mariupol’s out-gunned resistance consider the city a lynchpin in their attempt to create a land corridor between the Crimea region, which Moscow seized in 2014, and the Donbas.

One Mariupol resident who managed to escape the city, 33-year-old Oksana Vynokurova, described leaving behind complete devastation.

“I have escaped, but I have lost all my family. I have lost my house. I am desperate,” she told AFP after reaching the western city of Lviv by train.

“My mum is dead. I left my mother in the yard like a dog, because everybody’s shooting.”

In Kharkiv, where local authorities reported 44 artillery strikes and 140 rocket assaults in a single day, residents were resigned to the incessant bombardments.

Anna Kolinichyenko, who lives in a three-room flat with her sister and brother-in-law, said they don’t even bother to head down to the cellar when the sirens go off.

“If a bomb drops, we’re going to die anyway,” she said. “We are getting a little used to explosions”.

Russian forces have taken control of Slavutych, the town where workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant live, detaining the mayor, regional Ukrainian authorities said.

But residents of the town were mounting pro-Ukrainian protests, prompting the invading forces to fire shots in the air and lob stun grenades into the crowd.

Kyiv said it was shortening a planned 35-hour curfew to just Saturday 8:00 pm to Sunday 7:00 am, as Britain’s defence ministry said Ukrainian counter-attacks were underway near the capital.

– Counter-attacks –

Russia’s army had been predicted by some to roll across Ukraine with little resistance.

But Putin’s military has exhibited poor discipline and morale, faulty equipment and tactics, as well as brutality toward civilians, Western analysts say.

Amid heavy censorship, Russian authorities Friday gave only their second official military death toll since the start of the invasion, at 1,351.

This is far below Western estimates, with one senior NATO official saying between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have died.

Rudskoi’s announcement of a pivot to the battle for eastern Ukraine was accompanied by claims of success.

He said Ukraine’s military has been severely degraded and that Russia hadn’t seized cities to “prevent destruction and minimise losses among personnel and civilians”.

But his reference to plans for a “liberation” of the Donbas region could lay the groundwork for the Kremlin to focus on an easier campaign that can be sold to Russians as a victory.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians are mounting an increasingly aggressive defence and in places taking back ground.

A Pentagon official said Ukrainian forces were attempting to recapture Kherson, the only major city held by Russian invasion troops.

– ‘Incredible’ resistance –

Visiting the south-eastern Polish city of Rzeszow, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Ukraine, Biden on Friday praised Ukraine’s “incredible” resistance, comparing the conflict to a bigger version of communist China’s 1989 crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square.

The US leader, who is on a two-day visit to Poland, also met aid workers helping refugees fleeing the conflict.

Poland has taken in the bulk of more than 3.7 million Ukrainians seeking refuge.

Later Saturday, Biden is due to make a visit to a reception centre for refugees and give a major speech on the conflict.