Russian forces spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner Group seized the centre of the eastern city of Bakhmut during the 58th week of the war. Yet Ukrainian defenders were still holding the Russian army at bay, and their commanders said the Russian offensive was now clearly waning.
At the same time, pro-Russian civilians were evacuating southern occupied regions as thousands of Ukrainian soldiers completed their overseas training for a counteroffensive that could come later this month.
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Wagner mercenaries made advances into the centre of Bakhmut on March 31. Geolocated footage showed them within 400 metres (1,300 feet) of the town hall.
Two days later, after an overnight battle Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as “especially hot”, geolocated footage showed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin raising a Russian flag over the city hall. “From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken,” 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 likely advanced in southern Bakhmut closer to the Avangard Stadium, and Russian military bloggers claimed on April 4 that Wagner forces captured the Bakhmut-1 railway station.
Zelenskyy appeared to reassure Ukrainians wary of a repeat of the siege of Mariupol, when he said “corresponding decisions” would be made in Bakhmut as the situation developed.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner last year from the Azovstal plant when they were surrounded by Russian forces and were ordered to surrender.
Yet Russia’s attacks were fewer in number, Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, said.
“If earlier the occupiers 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 ‘metre by metre’ tactics … and, as the Kharkiv operation showed, these metres occupied by the enemy return to us very quickly.”
British military intelligence agreed that Russia’s winter campaign to seize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March 31 was flagging.
“Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed,” it said. “Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties,” the ministry wrote.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said Bakhmut had been Russia’s most expensive battle of the entire war in men and matériel.
Russian casualties certainly seemed to be going up. On April 2, the Ukrainian defence ministry estimated the Russian dead of the previous week at a staggering 4,000.
Russian military bloggers said the campaigns for Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south had to be won in time to prepare defences against a Ukrainian counteroffensive they thought likely to come between Orthodox Easter, on April 16, and Labour Day, May 9. “If our army 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 them, and there are fewer human resources for storming our positions,” said Ukraine’s commander of ground forces Col-Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on April 3 that Russian forces were “very far” from capturing Bakhmut.
Cherevaty told Reuters news agency by phone, “Bakhmut is Ukrainian and they have not captured anything and are very far from doing that, to put it mildly.”
Ukraine has received 49 of 258 promised battle tanks, and Spain promised it would receive six more after April 9.
Britain announced it had finished training a second group of Ukrainian soldiers on the AS90 self-propelled howitzers it is donating, another step in Ukraine’s preparation for its spring counteroffensive.
The US said it was providing another $500m in ammunition for howitzers, rocket artillery, Patriot anti-air 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 Ukraine, following a similar move from Slovakia last month.
But there were still 11,000 Ukrainians in training in 26 countries, said US Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder. More than 4,000 of them would not finish their training on Stryker and M2 Bradley armoured fighting vehicles in Germany before the end of April, when they would return to Ukraine to form two brigades. He said a further 1,200 Ukrainian soldiers would train in Germany with the US personnel.
These figures suggested that a Ukrainian counteroffensive might not come until May, but Ukrainian forces already in the field were keeping Russian defenders under pressure.
Nataliya Humenyuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern forces, said Russian troops in Kherson were finding it difficult to use their artillery because of the frequency with which pinpoint strikes were destroying their artillery and ammunition depots. The Russian forces were being forced to make more frequent use of aircraft as a result, she said
The Ukrainian general staff said Russian occupation forces were evacuating residents of Kherson on a voluntary basis. “In the Skadovsky district of Kherson region, the Russian occupation so-called authorities began compiling lists of persons 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’ will so far be carried out on a voluntary basis, primarily taking women and children out.”
Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov told Gazeta.ua website 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 making contact with Ukrainian authorities to secure guarantees of safety.
“Many representatives of the so-called Russian elite already understand that this was a colossal mistake and a crime, and the finale 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 about one’s own security and business. They try to get in touch and agree on personal security guarantees. There are already such cases,” Yusov said.
“There is an abundance of sociological data showing that most people want this conflict to end, even if they support Putin or the regime or the invasion,” Maxim Alyukov, a researcher of Russian attitudes to the war at the Russian Institute in King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“There are radical pro-regime minorities who think that complete victory is the only option, as well as people with oppositional attitudes who want the withdrawal of troops no matter what. The majority are in between,” Alyukov said. “They are very much in favour of peace negotiations, ready for compromises and concessions. If Putin announces the withdrawal of troops, they will support it.”
Xi the peacemaker
As the war raged, Western leaders raised the stakes for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin’s only significant ally, who was in Moscow last month and has recently cultivated his image as a peace broker.
China had a “major role” to play in securing peace, said Macron in Beijing. But he was also cautionary. “We have decided since the beginning of the conflict to help the victim, and we have also made it very clear that anyone helping the aggressor would be an accomplice in breach of international law.”
Unlike the widely criticised November trip of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, this one was not conciliatory.
“Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech days before accompanying Macron.
“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward,” she said.
China has provided Russia with economic and diplomatic support, but not military aid.
The visit was the second from European leaders in a week. On March 31 Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged Xi to speak directly with Zelenskyy.