Ukraine reinforces embattled Bakhmut, but mission is unclear

Ukraine is sending reinforcements to the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, leading more troops into a bloody crucible that has already cost both sides huge casualties, where Russian forces are gradually tightening their grip.

A Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Wednesday that her government had started sending new fighters to Bakhmut, where the most protracted battle of the war was taking place, but she didn’t say how many were sent. Even more critically, in a speech on Ukrainian television, Ms Maliar failed to say what role they would play in a battle that has left the devastated Bakhmut a city in name only.

The new forces could be deployed to dig in and try to hold territory, with the heaviest casualties being claimed by the Russians, who have lost thousands of troops in repeated, unsuccessful attacks on Ukrainian positions. They could be used to tie up Russian forces so they cannot be moved to other battles. Or they could be there to offer logistical support for Ukraine’s long-rumoured withdrawal from Bakhmut.

That latest statement seemed to gain some traction this week when another Ukrainian official, economic adviser Alexander Rodnyansky, outlined the challenges in an interview with CNN.

“Our military will obviously weigh all options,” he said. “So far they have held the city, but if necessary they will retreat strategically. For we will not sacrifice all our people in vain.”

Moscow turned its attention to Bakhmut last summer, but Ukrainian soldiers have held out there for months, even as Russian troops have gradually seized surrounding territory and nearly cut off the city. Russia has sent large numbers of troops to the front lines, including many newly mobilized, poorly trained recruits, giving Ukraine the ability to inflict thousands of casualties – albeit at a heavy cost for its own fighters.

“The most difficult situation is still Bakhmut,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly address on Tuesday. A day earlier he said Ukrainian forces had been dangerously exposed.

“The enemy is constantly destroying everything that can be used to protect our positions, gain a foothold and ensure defense,” Zelenskyy said.

The video, captured in the city, shows apocalyptic scenes of buildings reduced to rubble or charred, hollowed-out shells, with streets lined with burned-out remains of vehicles but few signs of human life.

In an audio message published on social media on Wednesday, the head of the Wagner mercenary force that has led the Russian offensive in Bakhmut said there was no sign that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing from the city.

The skirmish took place not only on the battlefield.

On a trip to Uzbekistan on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tried to win over Russia’s backyard — or at least not lose ground. He was the first cabinet official in the Biden administration to visit Central Asia, a region of former Soviet republics that Moscow considers within its sphere of influence.

The countries have attempted to maintain a neutral stance on Russia’s war, and they all have close economic, security, and diplomatic ties with Moscow, though some leaders and senior officials in the region have recently made skeptical remarks about the invasion.

Mr Blinken told a news conference in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, that the United States saw “no evidence” that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was ready to hold serious peace talks, despite growing calls from some nations for such negotiations to begin.

“On the contrary, the evidence is all going the other way,” said Mr. Blinken.

Mr Blinken’s comments came as he prepared for confrontations over the war at a meeting of senior diplomats from the Group of 20 nations in India. Both Russia and China are sending their foreign ministers to the conference in Delhi, with the main meetings taking place on Thursday.

The United States and its European allies insist that their priority for now is to increase military aid to Ukraine so that it can reclaim its territory and be in a better position when substantive talks eventually begin. Only then would there be a chance for a “just and lasting” peace, Mr Blinken said.

But several of the countries pushing for early peace talks have expressed their support for talks on negotiations released by China on Friday, the anniversary of the Russian invasion.

The 12 points in this “peace plan” were reiterations of bland statements of principle made by China throughout the conflict, including China’s long-standing declaration that there should be a ceasefire and that all nations should respect each other’s inviolable sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In fact, neither side has shown any willingness to negotiate except on the basis of the other’s surrender. Russia says its annexation of Ukrainian territory must be basis for talks; Ukraine says its premise is reclaiming that territory.

On Wednesday, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, welcomed one of the Kremlin’s closest allies, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, amid US warnings that Chinese support for Russia and its war in Ukraine is increasing.

After a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the two leaders discussed improving business ties and sharing technology, according to Belarusian state news media. According to the report, the war was not explicitly mentioned.

American officials have rejected China’s proposals for peace talks, citing China’s lack of detailed ideas and arguing that it is too closely tied to Russian interests. Even something as harmless as a ceasefire, they say, would only cement Russia’s illegal gains.

Mr. Zelensky has been careful not to criticize the Chinese proposal, instead using its publication to call his own meeting with Mr. Xi to discuss ways of ending the war. China has yet to respond.

If Beijing were to supply Russia with arms, it could significantly change the shape of the years-long conflict and give Moscow a much-needed lifeline in a war that has proved far more difficult for the country than predicted.

“I really want to believe that China will not supply arms to Russia,” Zelenskyy said at a news conference in Kiev last week. “I do everything to prevent that.”

“As far as I know, China historically respects territorial integrity, which means it should do whatever it takes to get the Russian Federation out of our territory,” he said. “Because it’s about respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Mr Blinken said on Wednesday that he had no plans to meet with his Chinese and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 conference. He made it clear that the Biden administration is deeply skeptical of any discussion of upcoming negotiations before China expects the warring parties to hold peace talks.

American officials say China is trying to provide Russia with a smokescreen that would allow Russia and its partners to present themselves as reasonable parties in the war.

Increasingly concerned about the war, particularly given the economic fallout with soaring food and energy prices around the world, many nations have maintained a neutral stance. These include the five Central Asian nations, two of which Mr Blinken visited, as well as some Group of 20 countries, including India.

Kazakhstan, which Mr Blinken visited on Tuesday, said last Saturday that China’s initiative “deserves support as the bloodshed ends”.

A big question looming over Thursday’s conference is how India will steer discussions about the war – whether it will support thorough condemnation of the war and to what extent it will encourage the main parties to the conflict to open negotiations, but Ukraine will not be represented in Delhi.

Vinay Kwatra, India’s foreign minister, told a news conference in Delhi on Wednesday that “this is not the era of war,” echoing a statement Prime Minister Narendra Modi first used at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last September . a regional security group in which China and Russia are the most powerful nations.

In talks held by Mr Modi with leaders of many nations over the last year, Mr Kwatra said, the Indian President “has stated clearly that dialogue and diplomacy are the way forward to resolve the conflict.”

Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Mujib Mashal, David Pierson, Markus Santora And Eric Nagourney. Ukraine reinforces embattled Bakhmut, but mission is unclear

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