Kiev vows to fight on in Bakhmut, despite expectations of a withdrawal

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday that he had spoken to his army chiefs about the situation in Bakhmut and said they insisted that the city should be defended rather than abandoned.

Zelenskyy said in his evening speech that he had asked Ukraine’s ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, and the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, about their views on continuing to defend Bakhmut, saying the options were either “withdrawal or continuation of defense and strengthening of the city.”

The president said “both generals answered: do not retreat and reinforce. And this opinion was unanimously supported by the staff. There were no other opinions. I told the commander-in-chief to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut. “

“There is no part of Ukraine that can be said to be abandoned,” Zelenskyy noted.

Ukrainian servicemen load a 152mm shell into an Msta-B howitzer to fire at Russian positions, near the frontline town of Bakhmut on March 2, 2023.

Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine is keen to show its allies that it can fight on in Ukraine, although some analysis and reports from Bakhmut suggest that some sort of withdrawal is taking place. And there are signs that its international partners would not see a tactical withdrawal from the city in a bad light anyway. On Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Bakhmut had more symbolic significance than strategic and operational value.

However, defense analysts have noted that Ukraine’s continued battle in Bakhmut has another advantage, saying that a significant number of Russian fighters have been drawn into what has been described (by the head of Russia’s mercenary forces) as a “meat grinder”.

Zelenskyy said Monday that defending Bakhmut meant destroying more of Russia’s invading forces.

“We destroy the occupier everywhere – wherever it gives results for Ukraine. Bakhmut has yielded and is giving one of the biggest results of this war, of the entire battle for Donbas.”

—Holly Ellyatt

China’s foreign minister says the country’s relations with Russia are not a threat to any country

China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang said the country’s relations with Russia is not a threat to any country nor subject to interference by any third country.

“The more unstable the world becomes, the more imperative it is for China and Russia to steadily promote relations,” said Qin, speaking at his first press conference since becoming foreign minister.

He added that “major countries” must consider whether to pursue “exclusive political blocs” or “promote friendship”.

Qin’s comments come after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week warned China against supporting the Russian war effort.

“China can’t have it both ways when it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine. It can’t be putting forward peace proposals on one side while actually feeding the flames that Russia has started with the other.” said Blinken at a press conference in Kazakhstan.

—Audrey Wan, Evelyn Cheng

New interactive map tracks changes in force posture on the front lines of the war in Ukraine

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, published a new interactive map of the battlefield in Ukraine.

The map, which was produced by the Washington-based think tank Transnational Threats Project, shows a timeline of how the force and frontlines have changed over the past year.

Take a look at new tool here.

— Amanda Macias

Ukraine’s army chief says defense of Bakhmut should continue

A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade looks towards a Russian position from a front-line trench March 5, 2023 outside Bakhmut, Ukraine.

John Moore | Getty Images

The head of Ukraine’s armed forces told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the defense of Bakhmut, a besieged city in Donetsk that Russia claims to have effectively encircled, should continue.

Zelenskyy held a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny and Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of the forces in Bakhmut, specifically focused on the situation and “they spoke to continue the defensive operation and further strengthen our positions in Bakhmut,” the president’s office said in a statement on Monday.

Russia has been slowly advancing on, and surrounding, Bakhmut for weeks, although fighting near and around the city has raged for about seven months with both sides determined to capture and defend the industrial city.

Russia is seen wanting to capture Bakhmut, which has been badly damaged in the fighting, as a way to cut off Ukrainian supply lines to the east, and sees it as a launch pad to larger cities such as Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Ukrainian analysts have played down the significance of Bakhmut, saying that even if the city falls into Russian hands, the course of the war will not change. However, both sides have put so much manpower into the fight that neither side wants to surrender.

Defense analysts at the US-based Institute for the Study of War believe Ukraine is beginning to implement some form of “limited tactical withdrawal” in Bakhmut, however, looking to inflict as many casualties as possible on Russian forces in the process.

—Holly Ellyatt

Russia’s defense minister visits the occupied port city of Mariupol

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attends an annual meeting of the Defense Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, on December 21, 2022.

Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited the Russian-occupied port city of Mariupol on Monday, according to the country’s Defense Ministry.

Shoigu traveled to Mariupol, located on Lake Azov, to inspect what the ministry said was reconstructed infrastructure. Russia has occupied Mariupol since last May after a protracted and bloody siege and bombing campaign that destroyed much of the city’s buildings and infrastructure, killing at least a thousand civilians, according to a conservative UN estimate.

The Defense Ministry said Shoigu visited a health care center as well as a new residential complex consisting of 12 five-story buildings, adding that schools and kindergartens were also under construction.

Pictures released by the ministry showed Shoigu wearing camouflage as he inspected the new facilities.

Reports suggest that Russia has sought to erase evidence of war crimes in Mariupol that took place during months of bombing of the city, as well as to erase all signs of Ukrainian history and culture – by, for example, changing street names and introducing the Russian curriculum into schools.

—Holly Ellyatt

The head of the Wagner Group says that Army headquarters has blocked his representative

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin, heads Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and a number of other companies.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, said Monday that one of his representatives was denied access to the headquarters of Russia’s “special military operation.”

Prigozhin said on his company’s Telegram channel that he had written to the commander of the “special military operation,” as Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine, about the “urgent need to allocate ammunition” to Wagner units fighting in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Then, Prigozhin said, on Monday morning “my representative at headquarters had his passport canceled and was denied access to the group’s headquarters,” according to a Google translation of his comment.

The founder of the Wagner group said that his units “continue to crush the armed forces of Ukraine near Bakhmut.” But at the weekend, Prigozhin claimed that his fighters were being deprived of ammunition and that if they were forced to withdraw from Bakhmut, the entire front line would collapse.

Wagner forces, made up of mercenaries and men recruited from Russian prisons who fight in exchange for an early release from prison, have made slow but steady progress in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The fighting is particularly intense in Bakhmut, where Prigozhin claimed on Friday that his forces “practically have surrounded” the city.

Prigozhin has previously openly criticized Russia’s military leaders, but created a significant rift between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin.

—Holly Ellyatt

Bakhmut’s fall would not mean that Russia has changed the tide of war, says the Pentagon chief

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was of more symbolic than operational significance and would not necessarily mean that Moscow had regained momentum in its year-long war effort.

A destroyed residential building in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on February 24, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“I think it’s more of a symbolic value than it is of strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters while visiting Jordan, adding that he would not predict if or when Bakhmut would be taken by Russian forces.

“Bakhmut’s fall will not necessarily mean that the Russians have turned the tide in this fight,” Austin added.

– Reuters

Status of besieged Bakhmut unknown as “tactical withdrawal” may take place

Ukrainian infantrymen with the 28th Brigade view damaged buildings as they drove to a front line against Russian troops on March 5, 2023 outside Bakhmut, Ukraine.

John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Bakhmut’s status is unclear after conflicting reports over the weekend about how much of the city was controlled by Russian forces and whether Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from parts of the city.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, said on Telegram Sunday that there were “no decisions or orders to retreat” and that “defenses are holding” in the city but also characterized the situation in Bakhmut and its outskirts as “very about as hell, as it is on the entire Eastern Front.”

But analysts on The Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces appear to be conducting a “limited tactical withdrawal” in Bakhmut, although they noted that “it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions regarding a full withdrawal from the city.”

The ISW said Ukrainian forces may withdraw from their positions on the east bank of the Bakhmutka River dissecting the city’s eastern flank. But it added that while Russian sources claim their forces have captured eastern, northern and southern parts of Bakhmut and claim to be reporting from positions in eastern Bakhmut, they could not independently verify these claims.

In any case, the think tank noted that it believes “the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut remains strategically sound as it continues to consume Russian manpower and equipment as long as Ukrainian forces do not suffer excessive casualties.”

“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may continue a gradual withdrawal of fighting to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” ISW added.

On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s mercenary force Wagner group, claimed his soldiers had “practically surrounded Bakhmut” but also called for more ammunition for his units, saying “if Wagner withdraws from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” signaling that Wagner experienced more tension with Russia’s Ministry of Defense following criticism by defense officials of Prigozhin.

—Holly Ellyatt

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