Wagner advances in Bakhmut as Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive

Ukrainian service members fire a howitzer M119 at a front line amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut. (Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters/File)

During the 58th week of the conflict, Russian soldiers led by mercenaries from the Wagner Group captured the centre of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Despite this, Ukrainian troops kept the Russian army at bay, and their commanders reported that the Russian attack was now manifestly weakening.

Simultaneously, pro-Russian people were evacuating the southern districts, and hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were completing their foreign training for a possible counteroffensive later this month.

On March 31, Wagner mercenaries advanced into the heart of Bakhmut. The geolocated footage revealed they were 400 meters (1,300 feet) from the town hall.

Two days later, following what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy characterized as a "particularly intense" nocturnal struggle, a geolocated film showed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin hoisting a Russian flag above the municipal hall. Legally speaking, Bakhmut has been seized, Prigozhin stated in a voice message.

Wagner was also believed to have acquired complete control of the AZOM industrial complex.

On April 3, Russian forces had likely advanced in southern Bakhmut closer to the Avangard Stadium, and on April 4, Russian military bloggers stated that Wagner forces had captured the Bakhmut-1 railway station.

Zelenskyy appeared to assuage Ukrainians concerned about a recurrence of the Mariupol siege when he stated that "corresponding decisions" would be made in Bakhmut as the situation evolved.

Last year, around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner at the Azovstal complex after being besieged by Russian forces and asked to surrender.

But, there were fewer Russian attacks, according to Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine's eastern military.

On April 1, Cherevaty reported that the number of daily incursions by occupying forces had recently fallen from 17 to 25. Formerly, the number of attacks ranged from 35 to 50 per day. "The enemy will be unable to alter his'metre-by-metre' strategy materially... And, as the Kharkiv campaign showed, these enemy-occupied metres are soon recaptured."

According to British military intelligence, Russia's winter drive to take the Donetsk and Lugansk regions by March 31 was faltering.

"After eighty days, it's becoming increasingly obvious that this project has failed," it stated. The ministry added, "Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties."

According to Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, Bakhmut was Russia's most expensive battle in terms of personnel and material.

The number of Soviet casualties appeared to be increasing. On April 2, the Ukrainian defence ministry calculated 4,000 Russian deaths from the previous week.

Russian military bloggers asserted that the operations for Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the south had to be won in time to establish defences against a Ukrainian counteroffensive that they believed would likely occur between Orthodox Easter on April 16 and May 9 (Labor Day). "If our army can't solve these problems, it's not even worth considering larger offensives," stated one.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine's ground troops, remarked, "In some areas, the enemy is visibly tense, as time is against them and there are fewer human resources for storming our positions."

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, stated on April 3 that Russian forces were "very far" from seizing Bakhmut.

Cherevaty told Reuters by phone, "Bakhmut is Ukrainian territory, and they have not captured anything and are extremely far from doing so."

The Counteroffensive

Ukraine has received 49 of the 258 promised combat tanks, and Spain has promised six more by April 9.

Britain has completed training a second batch of Ukrainian soldiers on the AS90 self-propelled howitzers it supplies, an additional step in Ukraine's preparation for its spring attack.

The United States announced it would provide Ukraine with an additional $500 million in ammunition for howitzers, rocket artillery, Patriot anti-air systems, and other weapons it has already supplied.

In addition, Poland announced that it had sent four of the fourteen MiG-29 jets it is supplying to Ukraine, following a similar transfer by Slovakia last month.

Pat Ryder, a United States Department of Defense spokesperson, stated that 11,000 Ukrainians were still receiving training in 26 nations. More than 4,000 soldiers would not complete their Stryker and M2 Bradley training in Germany by the end of April when they would return to Ukraine to create two brigades. He stated that an additional 1,200 Ukrainian forces would train alongside US personnel in Germany.

These numbers indicated that a Ukrainian counteroffensive might not occur until May, but Ukrainian forces already on the battlefield were putting pressure on Russian defences.

Nataliya Humenyuk, a spokesman for Ukraine's southern forces, stated that frequent precise strikes were destroying the artillery and ammunition depots of Russian troops in Kherson, making it harder for them to use their guns. Hence, she added, the Russian military was compelled to employ planes more frequently.

According to the Ukrainian general staff, Russian occupation forces evacuated residents of Kherson voluntarily. "In the Skadovsky area of the Kherson region, the so-called Russian occupation authorities have begun collecting a list of residents who consent to 'evacuation' to Crimea or the territory of the Russian Federation. It is known that the 'evacuation' would first be voluntary and will predominantly involve women and children."

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence, told the website Gazeta.ua that multiple sorts of defection were occurring at the Russian camp.

He added that from the beginning of the war, "thousands" of soldiers have gone over to the Ukrainian side to surrender as morale and motivation remained low among the rank-and-file.

Maybe more dangerously for Putin, he mentioned Russian elites contacting Ukrainian authorities to get safety guarantees.

"Many members of the so-called Russian elite are already aware that this was a monumental error and a crime and that the outcome would be disastrous for Russia. They search for means of their salvation. For now, it is not about fighting for another nation but one's safety and business. They attempt to communicate and reach an agreement on personal security assurances. Such instances already exist, Yusov stated.

Maxim Alyukov, a researcher of Russian attitudes towards the war at the Russian Institute at King's College London, told Al Jazeera, "There is a wealth of sociological data indicating that the majority of people want this conflict to end, even if they support Putin, the regime, or the invasion."

"There are extremist pro-regime minorities who believe that total triumph is the only choice, as well as opposing individuals who desire the evacuation of all forces regardless. "The majority are in the middle," stated Alyukov. "They strongly support peace negotiations and are willing to compromise. If Putin declares a troop pullout, they will back it."

Xi The Peacemaker

Western leaders elevated the stakes for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin's only prominent friend, who was in Moscow last month and has recently nurtured his image as a peace broker as the conflict escalated.

Macron stated in Beijing that China has a "major role" in ensuring peace. But, he was also cautious. At the outset of the fight, we resolved to aid the victim and made it quite apparent that anyone helping the aggressor would violate international law.

This tour was not reconciliatory, unlike the heavily criticized November travel of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

"Any peace plan that effectively consolidates Russian annexations is not viable." We must be forthright on this subject," European Commission leader Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech days before Macron's arrival.

She stated, "How China continues interacting with Putin's war will determine the future of EU-China relations."

China has offered Russia economic and diplomatic assistance but no military aid.

That was the second visit by European leaders in one week. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez encouraged Xi to talk with Zelenskyy directly on March 31.

Publish : 2023-04-06 17:25:00

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