Ukrainian forces claim to have retaken a Kyiv suburb and an eastern town from the Russians in what is becoming a back-and-forth stalemate on the ground, as negotiators assemble for another round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting.

Ahead of the talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country is prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and is open to compromise on the fate of the Donbas, the contested region in the country’s east.

The mayor of Irpin, a north-western Kyiv suburb that has been the site some of the heaviest fighting near the capital, said the city has been “liberated” from Russian troops.

(PA Graphics)

Irpin gained wide attention after photos circulated of a mother and her two children who were killed by shelling as they tried to flee, their bodies lying on the pavement with luggage and a pet carrier nearby.

A senior US defence official said Washington believes the Ukrainians have retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in the east.

The official said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near the capital Kyiv, and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

The official said Moscow appeared to be de-emphasising ground operations near Kyiv and concentrating more on the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for the past eight years.

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Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank through the town of Trostyanets (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Late last week, with it forces bogged down in parts of the country, Russia said its main goal was gaining control of the Donbas.

While that suggested a possible face-saving exit strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it also raised Ukrainian fears that the Kremlin intends to split the country in two and force it to surrender a stretch of its territory.

Ukrainian troops have recently pushed the Russians back in other sectors.

In the city of Makariv, near a strategic highway west of the capital, Associated Press reporters saw the carcass of a Russian rocket launcher, a burned Russian truck, the body of a Russian soldier and a destroyed Ukrainian tank after fighting a few days ago.

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A destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of Kyiv (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

In the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, the AP witnessed positions abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers who had moved farther west, but no sign of Russian troops.

On Friday, the US defence official said the Russians were no longer in full control of Kherson, the first major city to fall to Moscow’s forces. The Kremlin denied it had lost full control of the southern city.

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine drop any hope of joining Nato, which Moscow sees as a threat. Mr Zelensky has stressed that Ukraine needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.

Over the weekend, he said he was ready to agree to neutrality. He also said “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt”, while suggesting that compromise might be possible over “the complex issue of Donbas”.

The Ukrainian leader has suggested as much before but rarely commented so extensively. That could create momentum for the talks, for which the Russian delegates arrived in Istanbul on Monday, Turkish media reported.

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Volodymyr Zelensky (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

In other developments:

– A missile attack hit an oil depot in western Ukraine late on Monday, Rivne’s regional governor said, marking the second attack on oil facilities in the region and the latest in a series of such attacks in recent days.

– Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom has been knocked almost completely offline, suffering what network monitors called its most severe outage since Russia’s invasion. Government officials in Kyiv say they are investigating whether a cyberattack is to blame.

— UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said he has launched an effort to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire that would allow aid to be brought in and people to move around safely.

— The G7 major economies rejected a Kremlin demand that some countries pay in roubles for Russia’s natural gas. That demand appeared designed to support the Russian currency, which is under pressure from western sanctions.

— The US said it is deploying six navy aircraft that specialise in electronic warfare to bolster Nato’s eastern flank. It said the aircraft are not intended for use in Ukraine and will be stationed in Germany.

Talks by video and in person had earlier failed to make progress on ending the more than month-old war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes. That includes almost four million who have fled the country.

In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, the mayor said half the pre-war population of more than 400,000 have fled, often under fire, during weeks of shooting and shelling.

Mr Putin’s ground forces have become bogged down because of stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, combined with what western officials say are tactical missteps, poor morale, shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, and other problems among the Russians.

Moscow has resorted to pounding Ukrainian cities with artillery and air strikes.