The eastern city has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war
By Matthew Luxmoore
Feb. 26, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
Kyiv on Sunday countered Russian claims to have taken further territory around Bakhmut as Russia seeks to surround the eastern city that Ukraine’s military has defended against withering onslaughts for months.
The Wagner Group paramilitary force fighting alongside Russia’s regular army in Ukraine said on Saturday that it had secured control of Yahidne to the northwest of Bakhmut. The press service of Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin posted an image appearing to show Wagner fighters beside a sign marking the entrance to the village, and Mr. Prigozhin confirmed the village had been taken.
On Sunday morning, the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces appeared to deny the claims, without specifically commenting on the photograph posted by Wagner. It named Yahidne as one of six settlements, including Bakhmut, where Russia carried out unsuccessful offensives over the previous 24 hours.
Control of Yahidne by Russia would put further pressure on Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut in the face of a gradual Russian advance aimed at surrounding the city from the north, south and east, at a heavy cost to its military and Wagner’s army of convict-recruits and mercenaries.
Ukrainian soldiers in the city, which is pounded daily by Russian artillery and where some 5,000 civilians still remain, spend much of their time seeking shelter in basements in between missions to man positions in the eastern districts, just a few hundred meters from Russian troops. Block-to-block combat is commonplace, with both sides suffering heavy casualties in the process.
Ukrainian and Western officials had warned of a major Russian offensive in the east during the buildup to the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, but no major Russian breakthrough materialized. Instead, Ukraine has continued to probe Russian positions and reinforce its lines of defense as it urges the West for more arms and prepares for its own offensive in the spring.
Major General Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said in an interview with German media on Sunday that a Ukrainian spring offensive will likely include an attempt to push into Russian-held territory in the south, slicing through a land bridge from Mariupol to Crimea that Russia carved out of Ukraine in the war’s first months.
Maj. Gen. Skibitsky said the campaign would likely involve Ukrainian strikes on ammunition warehouses inside Russian territory, including in Belgorod region, from where many attacks on
Ukraine are launched. “We will only stop when we bring our country back to the borders of 1991,” he said, referring to the year the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained independence from Moscow.
A southward thrust by Ukraine, threatening territory Russia has shored up with several lines of fortifications, would put pressure on Russia’s control of Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and has since used as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine. Ukraine’s military on Sunday said Russia was building further fortifications in Crimea, bringing in dozens of conscripts to carry out the work.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted from the outset of the war that Ukraine won’t stop fighting until it regains all the land it has lost to Russia since 2014. He reiterated that on Sunday in a social media post marking the ninth anniversary of the start of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea.
“By returning Crimea, we will restore peace,” he said. “This is our land. Our people. Our history. We will return the Ukrainian flag to every corner of Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of staunch Russian ally Belarus, is expected to visit China this week for talks with top officials in Beijing between Feb. 28 and March 3. The trip comes amid a flurry of diplomacy around the anniversary of the Ukraine war. China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, visited Russia this week, around the same time as President Biden made a surprise trip to Kyiv.
The visits also come as tension grows over the possibility of increased Chinese involvement in the war in Ukraine. U.S. officials say China is considering supplying Moscow with artillery, drones and possibly other weapons to help Russian forces stave off an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. Beijing has responded by saying the U.S. and its allies are the biggest sources of weapons flowing to the battlefield.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national-security adviser, said Sunday during an appearance on CNN that the U.S. had made clear to Beijing through private, high-level communication channels that there would be severe consequences if China goes through with providing arms to Russia. He declined to share what those consequences would be.
“They know going all-in with Russia in this war in Ukraine would alienate a substantial number of countries that they are working hard to maintain good relations with,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds, whether it provides military assistance, but if it goes down that road it will come at real cost to China—and I think China’s leaders are weighing that as they make their decisions.”
Dustin Volz contributed to this article.