Ukraine claims Bakhmut’s gains despite Russian denials

Ukraine said on Friday its forces had recaptured parts of the territory around the besieged city of Bakhmut, even as President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted his army needed more time before launching an expected spring offensive.

Alleged gains made by Kiev near the epicenter of the fiercest battle have been refuted by Moscow, but they come with heightened expectations about the forthcoming fighting and the stakes high.

China said it would send a special envoy next week to visit Ukraine, Russia and European countries, as Beijing continues efforts to portray itself as a peacemaker.

Beijing plans to send senior diplomat Li Hui to Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia to “communicate with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

From Ukraine to the Middle East, Beijing has sought in recent months to position itself as a mediator with a leading role in resolving world crises.

But while China says it is a neutral party in the Ukraine war, it has been criticized for refusing to condemn Moscow for the invasion.

“Heavy losses” fighting Bakhmut

On the battlefield, Ukraine said its forces advanced two kilometers (about a mile) near Bakhmut – the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle since the invasion of Moscow lasted more than a year.

The population of Bakhmut was previously about 70 thousand people. It was destroyed as Russian forces made increasing gains over recent months, amounting to about 80% of the city.

“The enemy has suffered heavy losses in manpower,” Deputy Defense Minister Hana Maliar said in a statement on social media.

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“We did not lose any position in Bakhmut this week,” he added.

Russia has denied that Ukraine has made any breakthroughs in the restive city, saying that reports of its territorial losses around the city “do not correspond to reality”.

But the head of the Wagner private military group that spearheaded Moscow’s assault on Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Kiev had launched “successful counterattacks”.

Concern was also raised by the accounts of several Russian late-night war correspondents on social media, some of whom said the long-awaited counter-attack from Kiev had begun.

However, Zelensky said in an interview published Thursday that Kiev needed more time before launching the offensive.

“Mentally we are ready …”, noted the Ukrainian leader. In terms of equipment, not everything has arrived yet.

“With (what we have) we can go forward and achieve success. But we lose a lot of people. I think this is unacceptable. So we need to wait. We still need more time,” he said.

Prigozhin, whose conflict with the traditional Russian military has flared up in recent days, has acknowledged the Ukrainian successes and challenged his rival, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to visit Bakhmut.

“The enemy launched a number of successful counterattacks, urging him to ‘independently assess the current situation,'” Prigozhin wrote to Shoigu on social media.

Cereal deal renewal talks

The letter came after the outspoken Wagner chief launched unprecedented attacks against the Russian military leadership, accused Shoigu of partial responsibility for heavy Russian losses, and said that Russian soldiers were fleeing “criminal” orders in Bakhmut.

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Prigozhin admitted days ago that some Ukrainian units were successfully penetrating in some areas.

But the Russian military denied claims by Prigozhin and pro-Moscow bloggers that Kiev had made some breakthroughs.

“Individual statements on Telegram about a ‘breakthrough’ at several points on the front line do not correspond to reality,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

With Bakhmut’s fate hanging in the balance, Turkey said on Friday that talks on extending an agreement allowing grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea in the wake of Russia’s invasion were close to reaching an agreement.

“We are heading towards an agreement on extending the grain deal,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a statement.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, implemented since July after diplomacy by the United Nations and Turkey, allows Ukrainian grain exports through ports, helping to ease shortages and resulting price increases caused by Russia’s invasion of the breadbasket country.

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