The Russians tighten the screws on Ukrainian Bakhmut, and Putin warns of Western espionage

  • The early thaw turns the eastern battlefields into slush
  • Russian forces are advancing north and south of Bakhmut
  • The Kremlin: Kiev must accept the loss of territories annexed by Russia
  • The United States: The front line is “grindingly uphill”, and large Russian gains are unlikely
  • The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court visits a town where missiles killed civilians

KIEV (Reuters) – Russian forces on Tuesday held out their weeks-long campaign to encircle and capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, with the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces describing the situation as “extremely tense”.

If we take Bakhmut, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the war, it would be Russia’s first major prize in more than six months and open the way to capturing the last remaining urban centers in the Donetsk region, one of four that Moscow claims as its territory. “Special military operation” in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Federal Security Service (FSB) on Tuesday to step up security in the four regions – which his forces currently partially control – and also to counter what he described as the growing espionage and sabotage operations against Russia by Ukraine and the West.

He was speaking after a Russian regional governor said a drone had crashed near a natural gas distribution station on Tuesday, in an apparently failed attack near the town of Kolomna, just 110 km southeast of Moscow.

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Ukraine does not publicly claim responsibility for the attacks inside Russia. If it was behind the Kolomna incident, it would be the closest attempted drone strike on the Russian capital since Russia invaded Ukraine just over a year ago.

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Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of launching two attempted drone attacks on two regions in southern Russia during the night, but said they caused no damage.

The city is on fire

Around Bakhmut, Russian forces, including mercenary fighters from the Wagner Group, are trying to cut off the Ukrainian defenders’ supply lines and force them to surrender or withdraw.

“Despite the heavy losses, the enemy has thrown in the most prepared assault units of Wagner, who are trying to break through the defenses of our troops and surround the city,” Ukrainian Colonel General Oleksandr Sersky said in a statement.

An unnamed soldier from Ukraine’s 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade, speaking over messaging app Telegram as explosions rang out in the background, let out a defiant note: “February 28th, town of Bakhmut. The town is on fire, the enemy is pressing on. Everything will be Ukraine…”

Russia’s state-run RIA news agency published a video it said showed Russian Su-25 fighters flying over Bakhmut. “We’re glad they’re ours,” says a man in the clip identified as a Wagner fighter, adding that the planes helped them “psychologically.”

Ukraine’s military said Russia was bombing settlements around Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 but is now in ruins after months of intense trench warfare.

“Over the past day, our soldiers have repulsed more than 60 enemy attacks,” the military said early Tuesday, including the villages of Yedni and Berkhivka, north of Bakhmut.

A Reuters reporter who visited the area on Monday said he had seen no sign of Ukrainian forces withdrawing and reinforcements were arriving despite constant Russian bombardment.

US Under Secretary of State for Defense Policy Colin Kahl said on Tuesday that the front line in eastern Ukraine looks like a “grinding fissure” and that Russia is unlikely to be able to make significant gains on the ground in the near term.

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region dug in muddy trenches after warm weather thawed the frozen ground.

said Mykola, 59, commander of a Ukrainian front-line missile launcher battery, as he scanned the tablet screen for fire coordinates.

Spring thaws have a history of destroying armies’ plans to attack across Ukraine and western Russia, turning roads into rivers and fields into swamp.

Russia, whose forces have been replenished with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, has intensified its attacks along the eastern front but its attacks have come at a high cost, says Ukraine, which is expected to soon launch its own counter-offensive.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Moscow’s position that it is open to peace negotiations, but that Kiev and its Western allies must accept Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia – after referendums last September that Kiev and the West said were an illegal sham.

“The Constitution of the Russian Federation exists and it cannot be ignored. Russia will not be able to compromise on this matter, these are important facts,” Peskov told reporters.

Despite the failure to capture Kiev early in the war and despite numerous battlefield setbacks, Russia still controlled about a fifth of the Ukrainian territory. Kiev has so far ruled out talks with Moscow and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces to Ukraine’s borders in 1991 – the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

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The highest visits of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court

Moscow has also launched a campaign of missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian energy and other infrastructure far from the front lines, killing hundreds of civilians and leaving millions without electricity or water.

Those attacks – which Russia says are legitimate strikes aimed at weakening the enemy’s military but which Ukraine considers war crimes against civilians – were the subject of a visit to Ukraine on Tuesday by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan.

“Overall, we clearly see a pattern, I think, in terms of the number, scale and breadth of attacks against Ukraine’s power grids and we need to look at why this is happening; are they legitimate targets or not?” Khan told reporters in the satellite town of Vyshhorod in Kiev, where eight civilians were killed when a missile landed near an apartment building in late November.

It is not yet clear whether the missile was directed at a nearby electricity facility and missed its target.

Additional reporting by Mike Collett-White in Vyshhorod, Ukraine, and Patricia Zengerli and Idris Ali in Washington. Writing by Robert Purcell, Gareth Jones, and Mark Heinrichs; Editing by Stephen Coates, Nick McPhee and William Maclean

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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