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Ukraine says Russia must withdraw to pre-war positions before talks can happen

Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on screen as he addresses the audience from Kyiv during the World Economic Forum in Davos (AP)

Ukraine’s president has said Russia must pull back to its pre-war positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said he currently sees no willingness on the part of Russia to resume earnest negotiations on ending the three-month war.

“At the beginning, there was an impression that we can move ahead, that there would be a certain result or some outcome of those talks. But it all has stalled,” Mr Zelenskyy said through an interpreter via video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

He expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear its willingness to engage in serious talks.

“They should demonstrate at least something like steps withdrawing their troops and equipment to the position before the 24th of February,” the day Russia’s invasion began, he said. “That would be a correct step, first step in negotiations.”

Mr Zelensky also made clear that Ukraine’s aim is to regain all of its lost territory.

“Ukraine is not going to concede our territory. We are fighting in our country, on our land,” he said.

Russia, which has gradually narrowed its own military goals in Ukraine amid fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, might be playing for time, Mr Zelenskyy added.

Tombs of people who died after the Russia invasion in Bucha cemetery, on the outskirts of Kyiv (AP)

Attending the Davos forum in person, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the situation in his country’s eastern Donbas region was “extremely bad”.

He called for friendly countries – particularly the United States – to provide the Ukrainian military with multiple launch rocket systems so they could try to recapture territory.

“Every day of someone sitting in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and considering whether they should or should not do something, costs us lives and territories,” Mr Kuleba said.

A regional governor in eastern Ukraine said that at least six civilians have been killed by the latest Russian shelling in a town at the epicentre of fighting.

Luhansk region governor Serhiy Haidai said that another eight people have been wounded in the shelling of Sievierodonetsk over the past 24 hours. He accused Russian troops of deliberately targeting shelters where civilians were hiding.

Residents live in a subway station still used as temporary shelter in Kharkiv (AP)

The town is located in in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where Russian forces have been pressing their offensive despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.

Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swathes of territory. Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring cities are the only part of the Donbas’ Luhansk region still under Ukrainian government control.

Injuries were also reported from the eastern town of Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region on Wednesday morning.

Pokrovsk’s administration head, Ruslan Trebushkin, said in a Facebook post that the damage caused and the number of injured were still being assessed.

One strike left a crater at least three metres deep. A row of low terraced houses near the strike suffered significant damage, with roofing tiles blown off, door frames ripped from the walls and pieces of concrete scattered around.

“There’s no place to live in left, everything is smashed,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother-of-two who lived in one of the terraced houses.

A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka (AP)

The windows had been blown out by an earlier strike about a month ago, and they had replaced them with plastic sheeting. That, she said, probably saved their lives as at least there was no glass flying around.

On Tuesday, Mr Zelensky said the country’s forces in the region faced a difficult situation.

“Practically the full might of the Russian army, whatever they have left, is being thrown at the offensive there,” he said in his nightly address to the nation. “Liman, Popasna, Sievierodonetsk, Slaviansk – the occupiers want to destroy everything there.”

A solution to getting wheat out of Ukraine for export does not appear to be imminent.

British military authorities say Ukraine’s overland export routes are “highly unlikely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa, putting further pressure on global grain prices.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence, in an update posted on Wednesday morning, said there has been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.

The MoD said the blockade, combined with the shortage of overland shipping routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and cannot be exported.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also dismissed a proposal by Russia to permit food corridors in Ukraine if sanctions are lifted, saying Russia should do the “right thing”, leave Ukraine and free up the grain for the nations that need it.

Mr Wallace said Russia in effect stole the grain by not letting it out of Ukraine, “potentially starving countries around the world of grain”. He said much of that food was needed by countries such as Libya and Yemen.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (PA)

“People around the world are relying on that grain to feed themselves,” he said. “That grain is for everyone.”

“I call on Russia to do the right thing in the spirit of humanity and let the grain of Ukraine out. Stop stealing the grain,” he said at a press conference in Madrid. “And let’s not talk about sanctions.”

Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol has become functional after three months of fighting.

The military has completed clearing the port of land mines and it has been made fully operational, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday.

Russian forces have taken full control over Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, after the last Ukrainian defenders at the giant Azovstal seaside steel plant laid down their weapons.

A piece of a rocket lies next to a crater after a Russian strike in Pokrovsk, eastern Ukraine (Francisco Seco/AP)

In a further sign that Moscow is trying to bolster its stretched military machine in Ukraine, Russian politicians passed a bill which scraps the age limit of 40 for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.

The chair of the parliament’s defence committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand specialisms”. A description of the bill on the parliament website indicated older recruits could be suited to operate precision weapons or to serve in engineering or medical roles.

Russian authorities have said that only volunteer contract soldiers are sent to fight in Ukraine, although they have acknowledged that some conscripts were drawn into the fighting by mistake in the early stages.

Separately, President Putin has issued an order to allow a fast track to Russian citizenship for people in two southern regions of Ukraine which are largely held by Russian forces.

Mr Putin’s decree, dated Wednesday, could allow Russia to strengthen its control over the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They form part of a land connection between eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.