Russian forces led by mercenaries from the Wagner Group seized the center of the eastern city of Bakhmut during the 58th week of the war. However, the Ukrainian defenders still held the Russian army at bay, and their commanders said that the Russian offensive was now clearly winding down.
At the same time, pro-Russian civilians were evacuating occupied southern regions as thousands of Ukrainian soldiers completed their training abroad for a counter-offensive that could take place later this month.
Wagner’s mercenaries advanced towards the center of Bakhmut on 31 March. Geolocated images showed them 400 meters (1,300 feet) from the town hall.
Two days later, after an overnight battle that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as “especially hot,” geotagged footage showed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin raising a Russian flag over the city hall. “From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken away,” Prigozhin said in an audio message.
Wagner was also understood to have gained complete control of the AZOM industrial complex.
By April 3, Russian forces had probably advanced into southern Bakhmut closer to Avangard Stadium, and Russian military bloggers claimed on April 4 that Wagner’s forces captured the Bakhmut-1 railway station.
Zelenskyy appeared to reassure Ukrainians who were wary of a repeat of the Mariupol siege, when he said “corresponding decisions” would be made in Bakhmut as the situation developed.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner last year at the Azovstal plant when they were surrounded by Russian forces and ordered to surrender.
However, the attacks from Russia were fewer in number, said Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the eastern Ukrainian forces.
“If before the occupants stormed our positions from 35 to more than 50 times a day, in recent days their number has decreased from 17 to 25,” Cherevaty said on April 1. “The enemy will not be able to significantly change his so-called ‘meter by meter’ tactics… and, as the Kharkiv operation demonstrated, these enemy-occupied meters come back to us very quickly.”
British military intelligence agreed that Russia’s winter campaign to seize the Donetsk and Lugansk regions by March 31 was winding down.
“Eighty days later, it is becoming increasingly evident that this project has failed,” he said. “Russian forces have achieved only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties,” the ministry wrote.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Bakhmut had been Russia’s most expensive battle of the entire war in men and materiel.
Certainly Russian casualties appeared to be mounting. On April 2, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimated the Russian deaths for the previous week at a staggering 4,000.
Russian military bloggers said the campaigns for Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the south had to be won in time to prepare defenses against a Ukrainian counteroffensive that they thought was likely to take place between Orthodox Easter, April 16, and Labor Day, on May 9. cannot solve these problems, then larger-scale offensives are not even worth thinking about,” said one.
“In some areas, the enemy is noticeably nervous, because time is against him and there are fewer manpower to storm our positions,” said the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on April 3 that Russian forces were “a long way” from capturing Bakhmut.
Cherevaty told Reuters news agency by phone: “Bakhmut is Ukrainian and they have not captured anything and are a long way from doing so, to put it mildly.”
Ukraine has received 49 of the promised 258 tanks, and Spain promised six more after April 9.
Britain announced it had finished training a second batch of Ukrainian soldiers on the AS90 self-propelled howitzers it is donating, another step in Ukraine’s preparation for its spring counteroffensive.
The United States said it was providing another $500 million in ammunition for howitzers, artillery rockets, Patriot anti-aircraft systems and other systems it has provided to Ukraine.
And Poland said it had transferred four of the 14 MiG-29 fighters it is giving to Ukraine, following a similar move by Slovakia last month.
But there were still 11,000 Ukrainians in training in 26 countries, said Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the US Pentagon. More than 4,000 of them would not finish their training in the Stryker and M2 Bradley armored fighting vehicles in Germany before the end of April, when they would return to Ukraine to form two brigades. He said another 1,200 Ukrainian soldiers would train in Germany with US personnel.
These figures suggested that a Ukrainian counter-offensive might not arrive until May, but Ukrainian forces already in the field were holding the Russian defenders under pressure.
Nataliya Humenyuk, a spokeswoman for the southern Ukrainian forces, said Russian troops in Kherson were finding it difficult to use their artillery because of the frequency with which targeted strikes were destroying their artillery and ammunition depots. As a result, Russian forces were forced to make more frequent use of aircraft, she said.
The Ukrainian general staff said that the Russian occupation forces were evacuating Kherson residents on a voluntary basis. “In the Skadovsky district of the Kherson region, the alleged authorities of the Russian occupation began to compile lists of people from the number of locals who agree to ‘evacuation’ to Crimea or to the territory of the Russian Federation. It is known that the ‘evacuation’ so far will be carried out on a voluntary basis, taking out mainly women and children”.
Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov told the Gazeta.ua website that different types of defection were taking place in the Russian camp.
“Thousands” of soldiers had crossed over to the Ukrainian side to surrender since the start of the war as morale and motivation remained low for the rank and file, he said.
More ominously, perhaps, for Putin, he spoke of Russian elites contacting Ukrainian authorities to ensure security guarantees.
“Many representatives of the so-called Russian elite already understand that this was a colossal mistake and a crime, and that the end will be tragic for Russia. They try to find options for their own salvation. For now it is not about fighting for another country, but for one’s own safety and business. They try to get in touch and agree on guarantees of personal safety. There are already such cases,” Yusov said.
“There is a wealth of sociological data showing that most people want this conflict to end, even if they support Putin, the regime or the invasion,” said Maxim Alyukov, a researcher on Russian attitudes toward war at the Institute. Russian from King’s College London. , he told Al Jazeera.
“There are radical pro-regime minorities who think total victory is the only option, as well as people with opposition attitudes who want troop withdrawal no matter what. Most are in the middle,” Alyukov said. “They are very much in favor of peace negotiations, ready for compromises and concessions. If Putin announces the withdrawal of troops, they will support him.”
xi the peacemaker
As the war progressed, Western leaders raised the stakes on Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin’s only major ally, who was in Moscow last month and recently cultivated his image as a peacemaker.
China had an “important role” to play in securing peace, Macron said in Beijing. But he was also cautious. “We have decided from the beginning of the conflict to help the victim, and we have also made it very clear that anyone who helped the aggressor would be complicit in the violation of international law.”
Unlike the widely criticized November trip of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, this one was not conciliatory.
“Any peace plan that actually consolidates Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point,” said the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a speech days before accompanying Macron.
“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for the future of EU-China relations,” he said.
China has provided Russia with economic and diplomatic support, but no military aid.
The visit was the second by European leaders in a week. On March 31, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez urged Xi to speak directly with Zelenskyy.