Russia-Ukraine crisis

Ukraine clings to Bakhmut; Russia says it battles saboteurs in cross-border raid


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Ukraine clings to Bakhmut; Russia says it battles saboteurs in cross-border raid

ANTI-DRONE RIFLE. A Ukrainian service member holds an anti-drone rifle in a trench at a position outside the frontline town of Horlivka, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine March 1, 2023.

Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters

(1st UPDATE) Russia says seizing Bakhmut would open the way to fully controlling the rest of the strategic Donbas industrial region bordering Russia

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces hung on to positions in the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut on Thursday, March 2, while Moscow said its security forces had battled Ukrainian saboteurs who had taken hostages in a cross-border raid.

Russia’s FSB security force said the situation was now “under control” in Bryansk province just north of the Ukrainian border. Earlier Moscow had said armed Ukrainians had crossed the frontier, fired on a car killing one person and wounding a child, and held hostages in a shop.

In a brief television address, President Vladimir Putin said the attackers had fired deliberately on the car, knowing it held civilians.

“They won’t achieve anything. We will crush them,” he said, saying Russia was fighting “terrorists and neo-Nazis”.

An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the reports a false provocation by Moscow, but also appeared to imply some form of incident had been carried out by partisans.

Near the front lines west of Bakhmut, in the Ukrainian-held town of Chasiv Yar, the thump of outgoing artillery fire could be heard.

In nearby towns and villages, new trenches had been dug on the roadside 20-40 metres (65-130 feet) apart, an apparent sign that Ukrainian forces were strengthening defensive positions west of the city.

Residents trickled out of the area, carrying bags.

“We remained until the very last. We wanted to stay. But we how can we? Our neighbor’s flat has now been destroyed. It is time to go,” said Svitalana, 47.

The boss of Russia’s Wagner private army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, released video of his men waving a Wagner banner and musical instruments atop a ruined multi-storey building, which he said had been filmed near the center of Bakhmut. Reuters was not immediately able to verify the location.

Bakhmut has been reduced to a blasted wasteland, with a few thousand of its 70,000 pre-war civilian population still inside as armies battle street-by-street.

Russian troops, bolstered by hundreds of thousands of reservists called up last year and thousands of convicts recruited by Wagner from prison, have been advancing north and south of the city to cut it off.

Moscow, which lost territory throughout the second half of 2022, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the rest of the surrounding Donbas region. Kyiv says the city has limited strategic value but it is exhausting Russia’s invasion force in what has become the bloodiest battle of the war.

“Sooner or later, we will probably have to leave Bakhmut. There is no sense in holding it at any cost,” Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Rakhmanin said late on Wednesday. The aim was to “inflict as many Russian losses as possible.”

Cross-border raid

The reported raid into the village of Lubechanye near the border in Russia’s Bryansk province comes days after Moscow said Kyiv had attacked targets deep inside its territory with drones.

In videos circulating online, armed men calling themselves the “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had crossed the border to fight “the bloody Putinite and Kremlin regime”. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the footage.

Zelenskiy aide Mykhailo Podolyak called the Russian reports of the incident “a classic deliberate provocation”. Moscow “wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country & the growing poverty after the year of war,” he tweeted.

But he also implied an attack was under way, carried out by Russian partisans. “Fear your partisans,” he wrote.

Russian missiles crashed into a five-story apartment block in the southern city of Zaporizhzia overnight, collapsing upper floors in the center of the building.

As dawn broke, Reuters journalists saw rescue workers carry the body of a man out of the wreckage. Police said at least four people had been killed. Evacuated residents, in shock, were being kept warm aboard a bus while crews tried to clear the debris.

“The people were screaming from under the rubble,” resident Yuliia Kharytenko, 36, told Reuters. “We ran out in whatever we were wearing. Our cat is left there, scared. We don’t know if it is alive.”

An international team of war crimes investigators said on Thursday the Russian state had funded and operated a network of at least 20 torture chambers during its eight-month occupation of Kherson, recaptured last year by Ukrainian forces.

Russia’s aim was to “subjugate, re-educate or kill Ukrainian civic leaders and ordinary dissenters”, the team said.

Moscow has denied abusing civilians in occupied areas. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Russian forces are under pressure to secure advances now, before warmer weather brings the season of sucking black mud – “bezdorizhzhia” in Ukrainian, “raputitsa” in Russian – legendary in military history for destroying armies attempting to attack across Ukraine and western Russia.

Kyiv, for its part, is focusing on defense, planning a counteroffensive later this year with new weapons supplied by the West.

The war dominated a foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi of the G20 group of big economies, one of the last international forums involving top Western officials where Russia is still invited. Echoing wording from earlier meetings, host India said countries apart from Russia and China had condemned the war.

A senior US State Department official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke briefly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines, telling him Washington would back Ukraine as long as necessary.

“Unfortunately, this meeting has again been marred by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine, deliberate campaign of destruction against civilian targets, and its attack on the core principles of the UN Charter,” Blinken told the meeting. –

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