KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Kremlin said Thursday it’s up to Ukraine’s president to end the conflict in the country, suggesting terms that Kyiv has repeatedly rejected, while Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to press on with the fighting despite Western criticism.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “(Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy knows when it may end, it may end tomorrow if he wishes so.”
Peskov spoke Thursday as Russia freed American basketball star Brittney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released a Russian arms dealer. Griner’s case had become a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy amid deteriorating relations prompted by the Ukraine war.
The Kremlin has long said that Ukraine must accept Russian conditions to end the fighting, which is now in its tenth month. It has demanded that Kyiv recognizes Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsula which Moscow annexed in 2014 — as part of Russia and also recognizes other land gains made by Moscow.
Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly rejected those conditions, saying the war will end when the occupied territories are retaken or Russian forces leave them.
Putin recognized Wednesday that the fighting in Ukraine “could be a lengthy process.” He described Moscow’s land gains as “a significant result for Russia,” saying the Sea of Azov “has become Russia’s internal sea.”
During a conference call with reporters, Peskov said Moscow wasn’t aiming to grab new lands. But he added that Russia will make efforts to regain control of areas in Ukraine it withdrew from just weeks after incorporating them in hastily called referendums — which Ukraine and the West reject as illegal shams. Last month, Russian troops left the city of Kherson and parts of the Kherson region, one of the four illegally annexed Ukrainian regions.
“There are occupied territories in several new regions of the Russian Federation that need to be liberated,” Peskov said.
Putin vowed Thursday to achieve the declared goals in Ukraine regardless of Western reaction.
“It’s enough for us to make a move and there is a lot of noise, chatter and outcry all across the universe,” Putin said. “It will not obstruct us from fulfilling combat tasks.”
He described a series of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy facilities and other key infrastructure as a legitimate response to a bombing attack on a key bridge linking Crimea with Russia’s mainland, and other attacks the Kremlin said were carried out by Ukraine. Putin also cited Ukraine’s move to halt water supplies to the areas in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia.
“There is a lot of noise now about our strikes on the energy infrastructure,” Putin said at a meeting with soldiers whom he decorated with the country’s top medals. “Yes, we are doing it. But who did start it? Who did strike the Crimean bridge? Who did blow up power lines linked to the Kursk nuclear power plant?”
Putin particularly praised the Russian air force’s performance as “highly efficient.”
“The air force has done very well,” he said. “It has contributed significantly to the efficiency of the army’s action.”
Heavy fighting continued Thursday, mostly in the regions annexed by Russia. Zelenskyy’s office said 11 civilians were killed and a further 17 wounded in Ukraine on Wednesday.
The Donetsk region has been the epicenter of the recent fighting. Russian artillery attacks struck the center of the town of Yampil, northeast of Sloviansk, during the distribution of humanitarian aid to civilians, Ukrainian officials said.
Buildings in the city center, in addition to the market and bus station, were damaged in the city of Kurakhove, some 35 kilometers west of the regional capital, Donetsk, officials said.
More than ten cities and villages in the region were under shelling, including the town of Bakhmut, which has remained in Ukrainian hands during the war despite Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas region bordering Russia.
In other developments:
— The International Committee of the Red Cross announced Thursday that its representatives visited Ukrainian prisoners of war on the Russian side. International observers were previously not permitted access to see them.
“Last week, the ICRC conducted a two-day visit to Ukrainian prisoners of war, and another one is taking place this week. At the same time, visits to Russian prisoners of war took place,” the organization said in a statement. The Red Cross checked the prisoners’ conditions, gave them books, personal hygiene products, blankets and warm clothes, and contacted their relatives.
“We can check how prisoners of war are being treated and give their families the latest information. I expect these visits to initiate more regular access to all prisoners of war,” said ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric, without commenting or providing details on the treatment of prisoners.
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