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NATO chief says Russia's military might should not be underestimated despite Ukraine’s advances

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned against underestimating Russia's military might despite Moscow's withdrawal from Kherson and Ukraine's recent battlefield advances in the southern region.

Russia commenced what it called a "special military operation" in neighboring Ukraine on February 24, with the declared aim of “de-Nazifying” the country.

Back in September, four regions in Ukraine - namely Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson - joined the Russian Federation following referendums. However, Russian forces withdrew from the eponymous capital city of Kherson last week, leaving it to advancing Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian soldiers of committing war crimes and killing civilians - without evidence - in Kherson, the biggest prize his troops have won so far.

During a joint news conference with Dutch government officials in The Hague on Monday, Stoltenberg warned that Moscow's strength should not be underestimated despite Kiev's recent advances.

"We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia. The Russian armed forces retain significant capabilities, as well as a large number of troops," the NATO chief stated.

"The coming months will be difficult. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's aim is to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter. So we must stay the course," Stoltenberg added.

Echoing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's remarks over the weekend, the NATO chief said it was up to Kiev to decide what terms are acceptable for negotiations with Moscow to put an end to the war.

"They are paying now the highest price in terms of lost lives and damage to the country. So it is for Ukraine to decide what kind of terms are acceptable for them," Stoltenberg said, stressing that it is the situation on the battlefield that determines what happens around the table.

"So what we should do is to support Ukraine and to strengthen their hand so that at some stage there can be negotiations where Ukraine prevails as an independent sovereign nation in Europe," he said.

Since the onset of the operation, the United States and its European allies have imposed waves of economic sanctions against Moscow while supplying large consignments of heavy weaponry to Kiev. The Kremlin says punitive measures against Moscow by the US and its allies and pouring advanced weapons into Ukraine will only prolong the war.

Russia, US hold unannounced talks in Ukraine: Report

Separately on Monday, Russian and American officials held unannounced talks in the Turkish capital Ankara, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported, citing an unnamed source, adding that Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), is among the Russian delegation.

The Kremlin said it could neither confirm nor deny the report.

While the paper did not provide any details regarding the purpose of the talks, Reuters cited flight-tracking data purportedly showing that a Russian government airliner had arrived in Ankara from Moscow at around 0830 GMT.

Since the beginning of the war, Turkey has in several occasions presented itself as an arbiter between Russia and the West. Back in July, it helped the United Nations broker an agreement between Moscow and Kiev on exporting grain from blockaded Black Sea ports.

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