Biden meets Ukraine ministers as Russia signals scaled down goals
US President Joe Biden met with Ukrainian ministers Saturday, as Russia signalled it may scale down its war aims after failing to break the nation's resistance in a month of fighting and deadly attacks on civilians.
During the meeting, Biden was seated at a long white table alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin facing Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, a White House pool report said.
The US leader has been leading efforts among Western allies to press Vladimir Putin to end his invasion of Ukraine, branding the Russian president as 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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr 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.
Authorities 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.
France's President Emmanuel Macron announced a bold plan with Turkey and Greece to evacuate "all those who wish to leave Mariupol", adding he would discuss it with Putin soon.
One Mariupol resident who already left the city, 33-year-old Oksana Vynokurova, described leaving behind a hellscape.
"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 Kolinichienko, 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, adding that "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, arresting 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 lobbing stun grenades into the crowd.
Kyiv will impose a fresh curfew from Saturday 8:00 pm to Monday 7:00 am, as Britain's defence ministry said Ukrainian counter-attacks are underway near the capital.
- Counter-attacks -
Russia's army was 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.
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.