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Ukraine strengthens embattled Bakhmut, but mission unclear


Ukraine is sending reinforcements to the devastated eastern town of Bakhmut, drawing more troops into a bloody melting pot that has already cost both sides huge casualties, where Russian forces have gradually tightened their grip.

A Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Wednesday her government had started deploying new fighters to Bakhmut, the site of the war’s longest battle, but she did not say how many were being sent. Even more critically, Ms Maliar, speaking on Ukrainian television, did not specify what their role would be, in a battle that left Bakhmut devastated a city in name only.

The new forces could be used to dig in and try to hold territory, with maximum casualties on the Russians, who have lost thousands of troops in repeated and futile assaults on Ukrainian positions. They could be used to pin down Russian forces so they could not redeploy to other battles. Or they could be there to offer logistical support for Ukraine’s long-talked-about withdrawal from Bakhmut.

The latter explanation seemed to gain traction this week when another Ukrainian official, economic adviser Alexander Rodnyansky, laid out the challenges in an interview with CNN.

“Our military will obviously weigh all the options,” he said. “So far they have held the city but, if need be, they will retreat strategically. Because we are not going to sacrifice all our people for nothing.

Moscow turned its attention to Bakhmut last summer, but Ukrainian soldiers resisted there for months, even as Russian forces gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city. Russia has sent large numbers of troops to the front lines, including many newly mobilized and poorly trained recruits, giving Ukraine the opportunity to inflict thousands of casualties – albeit at great cost to its own fighters.

“The most difficult situation remains Bakhmut,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late night speech on Tuesday. A day earlier, he said Ukrainian forces were dangerously exposed.

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

Video recorded in the city shows apocalyptic scenes of buildings reduced to rubble or shells charred and hollowed out, with streets scarred by the remains of burnt-out vehicles but few signs of human life.

In an audio message broadcast on social media on Wednesday, the head of the Wagner mercenary force who led the Russian offensive in Bakhmut said there were no signs that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing from the town.

The skirmish was not just on the battlefield.

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

The countries have sought to maintain a neutral stance on Russia’s war, and they all have close economic, security and diplomatic relations with Moscow, although some regional leaders and senior officials have recently made skeptical remarks about the invasion.

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

“On the contrary, the evidence all points the other way,” Blinken said.

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

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

But several of the countries urging peace talks expressed support for talking points on the negotiations China released on Friday, the anniversary of the Russian invasion.

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

In fact, neither side has shown a willingness to negotiate except on the basis of the other’s capitulation. Russia says its annexation of Ukrainian territory should be basis for talks; Ukraine claims that its precondition is to take back this territory.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, on Wednesday hosted 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 was increasing.

After a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the two leaders discussed strengthening business ties and sharing technology, according to Belarusian state news media. There was no explicit mention of the war, according to the report.

US officials have rejected China’s peace talks proposals, pointing to its lack of detailed ideas and arguing that they are too closely aligned with Russian interests. Even something as innocuous as a ceasefire, they say, would only consolidate Russia’s illegal gains.

Mr. Zelensky was careful not to criticize the Chinese proposal and instead used its publication to call for his own meeting with Mr. Xi to discuss ways to end the war. China has yet to respond.

If Beijing were to supply arms to Russia, it could significantly alter the shape of the year-old conflict and give Moscow a much-needed lifeline in a war that has proven far more difficult than expected.

“I really want to believe that China will not supply arms to Russia,” Zelensky told a news conference in Kyiv last week. “I do everything to prevent this.”

“As far as I know, China historically respects territorial integrity, which means it must do everything to get the Russian Federation out of our territory,” he said. “Because that is respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Mr. Blinken said on Wednesday that he did not plan to meet his Chinese and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 conference. He made it clear that the Biden administration was deeply skeptical of any talk of imminent negotiations, ahead of an expected push from China for warring parties to engage in peace talks.

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

Many countries are increasingly worried about the war, especially given the economic impact, with the global spike in food and energy prices, and have remained neutral. These include the five Central Asian countries, two of which Mr. Blinken visited, as well as some of the Group of 20 countries, including India.

Kazakhstan, where Mr Blinken visited on Tuesday, said last Saturday that China’s initiative “deserves support to end the bloodshed”.

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

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

In conversations Mr Modi has had over the past year with leaders of many countries, Mr Kwatra said, the Indian President “has made it clear that dialogue and diplomacy are the way forward to resolve the conflict”.

The report was provided by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Mujib Mashal, David Pierson, Marc Santora And Eric Nagourney.

nytimes Gt

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