Russian troops also appeared to be withdrawing from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, officials said.
A senior US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Moscow could be planning to seize Mariupol as a springboard into the eastern Donbas region, where Russians troops may try to envelop Ukrainian forces. Russia’s military has increasingly tried to seize towns in that part of Ukraine, the Pentagon has said, and forces pulled from the country’s north appear to be heading there.
The focus on Mariupol came as Western officials attempted to assess Russia’s next moves, with troops withdrawing from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, diplomats preparing for more discussions Friday and the war continuing to disrupt oil and natural gas supply around the world.
There were also new claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being further isolated from his advisers, with a picture of emerging chaos around Russia’s front lines and tensions at the highest levels of the Kremlin.
Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, said in a speech Thursday that Russian soldiers are short on morale and weapons and have refused orders, sabotaged their own equipment and shot down one of their own aircraft.
In Washington, President Biden said Putin “seems to be self-isolated, and there’s some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers.”
“But I don’t want to put too much stock in that at this time because we don’t have that much hard evidence,” Biden said.
Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed doubt Thursday about Russia’s claim that it is withdrawing from the area around Kyiv, with Stoltenberg saying Moscow has lied about its intentions before and appears to be repositioning troops for fresh attacks.
“We can only judge Russia on its actions, not its words,” he said at a news conference in Brussels. “According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning.”
The chief of Ukraine’s Energy Ministry said Russian soldiers were withdrawing from what he characterized as the “main part” of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site, which Russian forces captured in February shortly after the war broke out. But Minister German Galushchenko noted that some troops remain at the facility and cautioned that “no one can predict their next steps.”
Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned atomic energy firm, said Russian forces were handing over Chernobyl to Ukrainian authorities and withdrawing troops. In a statement on Telegram, the company shared a letter in which Russian and Ukrainian forces purportedly agreed to the “transfer of protection” of the site. The claims could not be independently verified.
The Pentagon said Thursday that it was “unclear” about the accuracy of unconfirmed reports that Russian soldiers who are leaving the Chernobyl nuclear station had been exposed to high levels of radiation and presented signs of illness.
Biden’s remarks on Putin came after he announced he had authorized the release of an average of 1 million barrels a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months as a “wartime bridge” until US production can ramp up later this year.
The Treasury Department, meanwhile, unveiled new sanctions on Russia’s technology sector, focusing on an area that enables Moscow to acquire technology critical for its military, including one firm that is Russia’s largest microchip producer.
“We will continue to target Putin’s war machine with sanctions from every angle, until this senseless war of choice is over,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement.
Kremlin and Dmitry Peskov rejected claims that the Russian leaders’ advisers have misled him about the invasion of Ukraine.
“They don’t understand President Putin,” he said of Western government and intelligence officials who made those assertions Wednesday. “They don’t understand the decision-making mechanism, and they don’t understand our style of work.”
But French, German and British officials are rejecting Russian demands to pay for gas deliveries in Russian rubles.
Speaking during a joint news conference Later in the day, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire, said they would continue paying in euros. A for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that paying in rubles “is not something we will be looking to do,” Reuters reported.
The devastation wrought from five weeks of war showed no signs of ending. The death toll rose to 20 in Tuesday’s Russian missile strike on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolaiv, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said.
In a Facebook post Thursday, the agency said rescuers had removed 19 bodies from the scene and that one person died in intensive care. Dozens more were injured.
Drone video published Wednesday and verified by The Washington Post shows widespread destruction in Mariupol. The video, which compared recent images with footage from 2021, shows the stark contrast of before and after the siege, including the Mariupol Drama Theater that was bombed two weeks ago.
The destruction within the city has drawn comparisons with the siege of Aleppo in 2016, when Russian forces helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an eight-month campaign that featured the use of cluster bombs, chemical weapons and other banned munitions, in addition to heavy shelling and conventional airstrikes.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, the Russian three-star general who led forces in Syria, has been identified as the architect of the devastating siege of Mariupol and has been given a new nickname: the Butcher of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials blame him for the bombing of a maternity hospital, the Drama Theater and other buildings in the port city and vowed to see him tried for war crimes in The Hague.
“Remember him,” Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, tweeted recently over a photo of the 59-year-old general, a man with close-cropped gray hair and pale blue eyes. “This is Mikhail Mizintsev. He is leading the siege of Mariupol.”
The thousands of expected evacuees from Mariupol will be brought to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia. By Thursday evening, 45 buses had arrived to transport people, according to local officials. Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians specified when the cease-fire and humanitarian corridor would end, but Ukraine said its soldiers would “guarantee a full cease-fire regime.”
A facilitate for the International Committee of the Red Cross said its teams would travel with the convoy “to facilitate the safe passage of civilians out of Mariupol.”
Despite the agreement, part of the convoy was fired upon Thursday afternoon while driving toward the Russian-held city of Berdyansk, as the column of buses approached a checkpoint, damaging at least one vehicle, according to Tetiana Ignatenkova, a spokeswoman for the Donetsk regional administration . Previous humanitarian corridors in the country also have been fragile, with both sides accusing the other of violating cease-fires and obstructing supplies.
Since the start of the conflict, 80,000 residents have been evacuated from Mariupol using buses and private transport, according to the local government.
Ukraine will resume peace talks with Russia online on Friday, a senior Ukrainian diplomat participating in the negotiations said on his Telegram channel, after tentative progress in discussions in Istanbul on Tuesday.
The diplomat, David Arakhamia, said Ukraine stressed the need for a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a venue not in Belarus or Russia. But Russian officials declined, saying the sides should first work out a more coherent draft agreement, he said. Ukrainian officials have said any peace deal should be signed by the two leaders.
The two sides have been exploring ways for Ukraine to become a neutral country as part of a broader peace deal. Ukrainian officials have demanded a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian forces to the borders that existed on Feb. 23 — a day before Russia launched its invasion, Arakhamia said.
The negotiations have been met with skepticism by Ukrainian and Western officials. Ukrainian lawmaker Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, who visited Washington, DC, this week as part of a parliamentary delegation, repeatedly said Putin was using the talks as a smokescreen to buy time for his forces in Ukraine to regroup.
“It is difficult to negotiate with someone when the gun is being [pointed] at your head,” she said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. In remarks to reporters published by CNN on Wednesday, she said Putin was “sending false, lying messages” to the world.
Bennett reported from the Dnipro region of Ukraine. Brittany Shammas, William Branigin, Sarah Cahlan, Jeff Stein and Meryl Kornfield in Washington, Andrew Jeong in Seoul, Kim Bellware in Chicago, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Adela Suliman in London contributed to this report.