Russian attacks along a wide arc of Ukraine bring little, but casualties

KIEV, Ukraine — From Kupyansk in the north to Avdiivka in the south, through Bakhmut, Lyman and dozens of cities in between, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine, intensifying their fight for tactical advantages ahead of possible spring offensives.

Heavy fighting was reported Monday in and around Avdiivka, a town on the frontline for much of the year-long war that has become a flashpoint of fighting again in recent days. Russian shells hit an abandoned school in Avdiivka on Monday, killing a woman, according to Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, and the Ukrainian military said it repelled infantry attacks on the town and at least five surrounding villages.

In Bakhmut, where the private military company Wagner has taken control of the east side of the city, brutal fighting is taking place in the streets, in the blown-up remains of buildings and deep underground in the mine workings, according to Russian military blogs.

“Wagner’s assault units are advancing from several directions, trying to break through the defenses of our troops and advance into the central districts of the city,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, said in a statement released by the military. “In the course of fierce battles, our defenders inflict significant casualties on the enemy.”

In Kupyansk and nearby villages, Russia has stepped up shelling and sounding ground attacks, and Ukraine has ordered civilians to leave the country. Russian shelling also increased in Lyman and other towns. According to the Ukrainian military, Russian forces are making more than 100 attempts to breach their lines every day.

With few people or buildings intact, the most hotly contested locations have little to offer beyond the control of roads and railroads, which the Kremlin sees as vital to its goal of conquering the entire eastern region known as Donbass. The attacks can also provide better positioning for the next attack, information about the other side’s positions, and propaganda value.

But even by these standards, Russian gains are minimal, and they come at terrible costs on both sides. Western officials and analysts have estimated around 200,000 dead or injured on the Russian side. They don’t publicly quantify Ukraine’s losses, but suspect they are also enormous.

Outside the war zone, Russia said it had no objection to a 60-day extension of a deal that would allow Ukraine to ship grain to world markets despite a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. However, a longer extension would require easing restrictions on Russia’s own agricultural exports.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin outlined Russia’s stance at talks in Geneva on Monday on extending the deal, which expires on Saturday. The pact, negotiated by the United Nations and Turkey in July, was crucial to reducing global food shortages and price spikes initially caused by the war.

In The Hague, the International Criminal Court plans to open two war crimes cases and obtain arrest warrants for several people – how senior it is is unclear – according to people familiar with the decision. In the cases, Russia is accused of deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure and kidnapping Ukrainian children and sending them to indoctrination camps.

As important as the cases are as a censure, no trial is likely to result. Russia will almost certainly refuse to extradite suspects, and the court will not hear in absentia.

On the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, Russian pro-war blogs, which have large followings back home, take a bleak view of how things are going.

Since the war began, the Russians have repeatedly attempted to take Avdiivka, despite it being just outside the Russian-held regional capital Donetsk, and local Russian commanders have reported taking some nearby villages in recent days.

Vitaliy Barabash, head of Avdiivka’s military administration, said on Ukrainian television over the weekend that Russia “massively hit the villages near and on the way to the city in the past week.” He added: “These villages will be erased.”

But the city itself is heavily fortified by the Ukrainians, and the prospect of an encirclement by Russia “is not even close,” blogger Igor Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, wrote on Monday.

The Russian advance at Bakhmut “is insignificant” and the Ukrainians have waged a “generally successful” campaign there to wear down the attackers and buy time, Mr Strelkov said. The Ukrainians have a firm grip on the western part of the city, and even if they were to withdraw, the exhausted Russian forces would care little.

Western military analysts had predicted that Russia, after calling up 300,000 troops last fall and sending many of them to Ukraine, would launch a new major offensive in the spring. Now they wonder if the Russian military is so exhausted that it can hardly handle more than the kinds of attacks already underway.

But Ukrainians, anticipating a large influx of Western arms and fresh troops in the coming weeks and months, are widely expected to launch a counteroffensive. Analysts, Ukrainian officials and even Russian commentators have suggested it would come on the south-western part of the front, with the Ukrainians attempting a push east from Kherson and south from Zaporizhzhia towards the town of Melitopol in hopes of crossing the land bridge of the seized by the Russians, which connects the Crimean peninsula with the eastern Donbass region.

The Russian blog Rybar said on Monday that Ukrainians holding the west bank of the Dnipro had used speedboats and drones to scout Russian positions on the east bank and delivered boats, barges and units specializing in building pontoon bridges to the Kherson region , to signal preparation for an attack .

Wagner fighters have led Russian forces in a long-running attempt to capture Bakhmut. But Wagner’s efforts have been hampered by political infighting between his self-proclaimed leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is close to President Vladimir V. Putin, and the Russian military leadership, which Mr. Prigozhin has sharply and publicly criticized.

Last year, Mr. Prigozhin reinforced his forces by recruiting prisoners and offering them freedom after a tour of the front lines, but thousands of them were killed, wounded or captured, and earlier this year the Russian government barred Wagner’s access to more prisoners. More recently, Mr. Prigozhin has bitterly complained that the Russian military is denying its fighters much-needed ammunition.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said Sunday, “Russia’s military leadership may be trying to consume Wagner forces — and Prigozhin’s influence — in Bakhmut.”

But Wagner appears to be stepping up efforts to recruit fighters outside of prison. The exiled mayor of Melitopol, a Russian-held city in the south, said Monday Wagner was trying to recruit people there.

And the British Ministry of Defense spoke up an intelligence update that Wagner set up recruitment efforts at dozens of sports centers across Russia that month and sent “masked Wagner recruiters” to secondary schools to generate interest in enrollment by “distributing questionnaires titled ‘Application of a Young Warrior'” .

Markus Santora reports from Kyiv, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London and Richard Pérez-Peña from Los Angeles. Reporting was contributed by Marlis Simons from Paris and Nick Cumming Bruce from Geneva. Russian attacks along a wide arc of Ukraine bring little, but casualties

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