Ukraine vows to fight on in Bakhmut and inflict steep losses on Russia; China defends ties to Moscow

This was CNBC's live blog tracking developments on the war in Ukraine on March 8, 2023. See here for the latest updates. 

Its back might be against the wall in Bakhmut, but Ukraine has vowed to continue its defense of the city in Donetsk and is sending reinforcements into the hottest spot in the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday.

In the process of defending the city in Donetsk, he added, Ukraine can inflict more losses on Russian forces.

Fighting in Bakhmut has been going on for around seven months and it's undoubtedly the scene of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine right now. Russian forces and mercenary units from the Wagner Group have been slowly advancing on, and into, Bakhmut and surrounding settlements in recent weeks. It's believed they now occupy areas on three sides of the city to the north, east and south.

A Ukrainian infantryman with the 28th Brigade observes Russian positions from a front-line trench facing Russian troops on March 5, 2023, outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Defense analysis suggests Russian forces surround much of the city and have made advances into Bakhmut but do not control all parts of the city, but Ukrainian-held supply routes into Bakhmut appear increasingly limited and at risk. Several thousands of people still live in the city, much of which has been reduced to ruins.

A Ukrainian commander of troops in Bakhmut characterized the situation in the city and its outskirts as "very much like hell" at the weekend, while analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank said Sunday that Ukraine appears to be conducting a "limited tactical withdrawal" in Bakhmut.

Nearly 800 ships carrying 22.9 million metric tons of agricultural goods have left Ukrainian ports, UN says

An aerial view shows ships at the anchorage area of the Bosphorus southern entrance in Istanbul, on October 12, 2022.
Yasin Akgul | AFP | Getty Images

The organization overseeing the export of agricultural products from Ukraine said that more than 781 ships have transported 22.9 million metric tons of goods so far.

Before Moscow's full-scale invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor last year, Ukraine and Russia accounted for almost a quarter of global grain exports, until those shipments came to a severe halt for nearly six months.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered in July among Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, eased Russia's naval blockade and reopened three key Ukrainian ports.

The deal between the signatories is set to expire in a little over a week.

— Amanda Macias

Ukrainian war veterans demonstrate 'Hero Arm' prosthesis on path of recovery from Russia's war

Ukrainian war veterans Andrii Gidzun, 30-year-old, and Vitalii Ivashchuk, 24-year-old, demonstrate their high-tech bionic prosthesis from Open Bionics, during a news conference of Superhumans Center, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine March 5, 2023.
Stringer | Reuters

Ukrainian war veterans Andrii Gidzun, 30, and Vitalii Ivashchuk, 24, demonstrate their new bionic prosthesis from Open Bionics, during a news conference at the Superhumans Center clinic.

The "Hero Arm" manufactured by British-based tech company Open Bionics uses sensors activated by muscles in the forearm. Gidzun and Ivashchuk demonstrated hand gestures as well as grasping objects.

The Superhumans Center works with Open Bionics to provide former Ukrainian troops who lost limbs as a result of Russia's war prostheses, rehabilitation and counseling.

Ukrainian war veterans Andrii Gidzun, 30-year-old, and Vitalii Ivashchuk, 24-year-old, demonstrate their high-tech bionic prosthesis from Open Bionics, during a news conference of Superhumans Center, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine March 5, 2023.
Stringer | Reuters
Ukrainian war veteran Vitalii Ivashchuk, 24-year-old, demonstrates his high-tech bionic prosthesis from Open Bionics, during a news conference of Superhumans Center, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine March 5, 2023. 
Stringer | Reuters
Ukrainian war veteran Vitalii Ivashchuk, 24-year-old, demonstrates his high-tech bionic prosthesis from Open Bionics, during a news conference of Superhumans Center, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine March 5, 2023.
Stringer | Reuters

— Amanda Macias

State Department says Russia will not be able to alter perceptions of war in Ukraine by holding UN Security Council presidency

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price holds a press briefing on Afghanistan at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2021.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that Russia's upcoming presidency of the U.N. Security Council will not impact global standing on the Kremlin's war in Ukraine.

Price said there will be no amount of "propaganda, misinformation or disinformation" that Russia peddles from the helm of the U.N. Security Council that will alter perceptions.

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine's permanent representative to the United Nations, urged the international forum earlier in the week to prohibit Russia from holding its scheduled one-month presidency on April 1 over the Security Council.

Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, which is based in New York City and serves as the U.N. arm tasked with maintaining peace and security. Russia also holds veto power in the Security Council, which can hamper any decision-making in regard to supporting Ukraine.

— Amanda Macias

130 Ukrainian service members returned in latest prisoner release

116 Ukrainian servicemen pose for a photo after being released in new round of war prisoners exchange with Russia on February 04, 2023. Andrii Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, said on March 7, 2023 that 130 additional Ukrainians were returned following Russian detention.
Ukrainian Presidency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Andrii Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, said that 130 Ukrainians were returned following Russian detention.

Yermak said that 126 men and four women were released.

"These are soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, National Guardsmen, and border guards. Among them are 87 Mariupol defenders, 71 of whom are from Azovstal," Yermak wrote on his official Telegram channel, according to an NBC News translation.

"Most of the people we bring back today have serious injuries," he said, adding that all Ukrainians should work to take care of those returning from Russian imprisonment.

"I am proud of the entire team that worked long and hard on this exchange. Incredible feelings when our people are at home," he added.

— Amanda Macias

Zelenskyy warns that Russian troops will push deeper into Ukraine if Bakhmut falls

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks to media during their joint press conference with Prime Minister of Sweden following the talks in Kyiv on February 15, 2023.
Sergei Supinsky | AFP | Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Russian forces will push deeper into Ukraine if they seize control of the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut.

"We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be an open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine," Zelenskyy said in the interview, which is set to air on March 8 at 9 p.m. ET.

"That's why our guys are standing there," he added when asked about potentially retreating from the area.

"Russia needs some victory, a small victory, even by ruining everything in Bakhmut by killing every civilian there," Zelenskyy said, referencing minimal gains by Russian troops against Ukrainian forces.

Zelenskyy said that if Russia is able to "put their little flag" in Bakhmut it would help "mobilize their society in order to create this idea they're such a powerful army."

— Amanda Macias

China has not yet provided Russia with weapons for the war in Ukraine, White House says

John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, answers questions during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2023. 
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

The White House said it has not yet seen China supply Russia with weapons for the war in Ukraine and declined to elaborate on potential U.S. retaliatory actions if Beijing decides to do so.

"China has a choice to make here," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said when asked by reporters about any potential weapons transfers.

Kirby said that additional sanctions measures would be a discussion on the table between U.S. President Joe Biden and European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Washington this week but declined to speculate about China.

He said that the U.S. and its Western allies hope that China does "not make it any easier for Mr. Putin to kill innocent Ukrainians."

— Amanda Macias

Zelenskyy to speak to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in wide-ranging, prime-time interview

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the start of a summit at EU parliament in Brussels, on February 9, 2023.
Kenzo Tribouillard | Afp | Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will speak with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday for a wide-ranging interview, CNN announced.

The two are expected to discuss China's relationship with Russia, President Joe Biden's recent trip to Kyiv, as well as the ongoing battle for Bakhmut.

The interview is set for March 8 at 9 p.m. E.T.

— Amanda Macias

More than 8.1 million Ukrainians have become refugees from Russia’s war, UN estimates

Evacuees from Mariupol area get settled at a refugee camp in the settlement of Bezymennoye during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the Donetsk region, Ukraine March 8, 2022.
Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

More than 8.1 million Ukrainians have become refugees and moved to neighboring countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February of last year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates.

Nearly 5 million of those people have applied for temporary resident status in neighboring Western European countries, according to data collected by the agency.

"The escalation of conflict in Ukraine has caused civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure, forcing people to flee their homes seeking safety, protection and assistance," the U.N. Refugee Agency wrote.

— Amanda Macias

'We must continue our support for as long as it take,' NATO's Stoltenberg says

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference at the end of a two-day meeting of the alliance's defense ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 15, 2023.
Kenzo Tribouillard | AFP | Getty Images

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Albanian president Bajram Begaj for pledging additional funds for Ukraine.

"Mr. Putin is launching new offensives and waves of deadly missile attacks," Stoltenberg said during a press conference following a meeting with Begaj.

"Our response must be to continue providing Ukraine with what they need to prevail," the NATO chief said, adding "we must continue our support for as long as it takes."

— Amanda Macias

UN Secretary General arrives in Warsaw ahead of meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv

"I was moved by the resilience and bravery of the people of Ukraine. My message to them is simple: We will not give up," tweeted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, after he returned from a visit to Ukraine earlier this week, where he visited the Kyiv suburbs of Borodianka, Bucha and Irpin.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to arrive in Kyiv, Ukraine on Wednesday.

"He will meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv to discuss the continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in all its aspects, as well as other pertinent issues," Stephane Dujarric wrote in an email to UN correspondents.

"This is the Secretary-General's third visit to Ukraine in the last year," he added.

— Amanda Macias

Ukraine starts talks to extend Black Sea grain deal

A cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain, and another originating from Ukraine, sail at the entrance of Bosphorus, in the Black Sea off the coast off Kumkoy, north of Istanbul, on November 2, 2022.
Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine is negotiating with partners to extend the Black Sea grain deal that enables it to ship its grain exports to overseas markets.

Kyiv has not spoken directly with Moscow but is aware that its partners are doing so to further the grain initiative, Reuters quoted a Ukrainian government source as saying.

Ukraine produces and exports a huge proportion of the world's grain. Its exports were halted last year after Russian naval ships blockaded its Black Sea ports. The U.N. and Turkey helped broker an agreement in July of 2022 to allow the grain exports to continue, which was extended in November, but expires on March 18 unless an extension agreement can be reached.

Russia has so far indicated it is unhappy with parts of the deal, which Turkey's diplomats say they are working hard on securing an extension. Kyiv aims to see the deal extended by at least a year.

— Natasha Turak

Belarus says it detained 'terrorist' group that attempted to sabotage Russian aircraft

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Region, Russia April 12, 2022. 
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

Belarusian authorities say they have detained a "terrorist group" that they accuse of working on behalf of Ukraine to sabotage Russian planes at an airbase close to Belarus's capital Minsk.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the group was working at the behest of Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence services and that more than 20 people have been arrested so far.

Anti-government activists in Belarus said in February that they blew up a Russian surveillance aircraft using a drone, which Moscow and Minsk disputed. Lukashenko said the damage to the aircraft was only minimal.

"The Security Service of Ukraine, the leadership of the CIA, behind closed doors, are carrying out an operation against the Republic of Belarus. A terrorist was trained," Lukashenko said Tuesday, according to Belarusian state media.

— Natasha Turak

Moscow court sentences student activist to 8.5 years in prison for dissent

A court in Moscow sentenced student activist Dmitry Ivanov to 8.5 years in prison on the charge of spreading false information to discredit the Russian military.

Ivanov, 23, is a pro-democracy activist at Moscow State University who ran a Telegram channel called "Protest at MGU" (the acronym for the university).

Before his verdict was announced, Ivanov was quoted as saying to the court: "Peace to Ukraine, freedom to Russia! My example should not scare you. We have to do a lot to live in the country we deserve and to end this war."

He added, "You must understand that Russia is not Putin. Tens of millions of Russians are against this criminal war … This is a dark moment in our history, but it is always darkest before dawn."

Shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, the Kremlin announced a law that would punish anyone deemed to be "spreading disinformation" or "discrediting Russia's armed forces" with up to 15 years imprisonment. Several anti-war activists have already been jailed as Russian authorities crack down heavily on dissent.

— Natasha Turak

Russia's Shoigu: Capture of Bakhmut will allow further offensives in Ukraine

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends an annual meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. 
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the seizure of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine would allow Russian forces to mount further offensive operations, Russian news agencies reported.

Shoigu also said the West was increasing its arms deliveries to Ukraine, but vowed they would not change the course of events on the battlefield.

— Reuters

Number of Russian missile carriers in Black Sea has increased, Ukraine says

Russian warships ahead of the Navy Day parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea, on July 23, 2021.
Alexey Pavlishak | Reuters

The number of Russian missile carriers has risen to four, Ukraine's South Operational Command said Tuesday, saying these warships potentially carry 24 Kalibr-type cruise missiles.

"In the Black Sea, the enemy continues maneuvering with its naval group, increasing the presence of missile carriers," South Operational Command said on Facebook, according to a translation provided by news agency Ukrinform.

"Currently, there are 15 warships, including two surface missile carriers and two missile submarines," the report said, as well as three large landing craft. Ukraine keeps a close eye on naval activity in the Black Sea to watch for any launches of long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.

— Holly Ellyatt

Ukraine's mud likely hampering its own resupply efforts in Bakhmut

Ukraine's infamous muddy season has started and is expected to peak in the next week — and it's already likely proving a nuisance for its forces trying to resupply their units in the besieged city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Britain's Ministry of Defense noted Tuesday that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut "continues to degrade forces on both sides" and that, over the weekend, Ukrainian forces likely stabilized "their defensive perimeter following previous Russian advances into the north of the town."

However, the ministry noted that a Russian strike destroyed a bridge over the only paved supply road into Bakhmut that was still under Ukrainian control around March 2.

Now muddy conditions along that route are therefore "likely hampering Ukrainian resupply efforts as they increasingly resort to using unpaved tracks."

A soldier from a Ukrainian assault brigade walks along a muddy road used to transport and position British-made L118 105mm Howitzers, on March 4, 2023, near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russian forces and mercenary fighters belonging to the Wagner Group are encountering problems over ammunition shortages. The Wagner Group's leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had a public spat with the Russian Defense Ministry, which he has repeatedly criticized.

"Public disagreements between the Wagner Group and Russian Ministry of Defence over the allocation of munitions highlights the difficulty in sustaining the high levels of personnel and ammunition required to advance with their current tactics."

— Holly Ellyatt

Kyiv vows to fight on in Bakhmut, defying expectations of a withdrawal

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday that he had spoken to his army commanders about the situation in Bakhmut and said they'd insisted the city should be defended rather than abandoned.

Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that he had asked Ukraine's ground forces commander, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, and the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, about their view on continuing to defend Bakhmut, saying the options were either "withdrawal or continuation of defense and reinforcement of the city."

The president said "both generals replied: do not withdraw and reinforce. And this opinion was unanimously backed by the Staff. There were no other opinions. I told the Commander-in-Chief to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut."

"There is no part of Ukraine about which one can say that it can be abandoned," Zelenskyy noted.

Ukrainian servicemen load a 152 mm shell into a Msta-B howitzer to fire toward Russian positions, near the front-line town of Bakhmut on March 2, 2023.
Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine is keen to show its allies that it can fight on in Ukraine, although some analysis and reports from Bakhmut suggest some kind of withdrawal is taking place. And there are signs that its international partners would not view a tactical withdrawal from the city in a bad light in any case. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Bakhmut had more symbolic importance than strategic and operational value.

Defense analysts have noted, however, that Ukraine continuing to fight in Bakhmut has another added advantage, saying a significant number of Russian fighters have been brought into what has been described (by the head of Russia's mercenary forces) as a "meat grinder."

Zelenskyy said Monday that defending Bakhmut meant destroying more of Russia's invading forces.

"We are destroying the occupier everywhere - wherever it yields results for Ukraine. Bakhmut has yielded and is yielding one of the greatest results during this war, during the entire battle for Donbas."

— Holly Ellyatt

China's foreign minister says country's Russia relations are not a threat to any country

China's new foreign minister Qin Gang said the country's relations with Russia are not a threat to any country and also not subject to interference by any third country.

"The more unstable the world becomes the more imperative it is for China and Russia to steadily advance relations," said Qin, speaking at his first press conference since becoming foreign minister.

He added that "major countries" need to consider whether they are pursuing "exclusive political blocs" or "fostering friendship."

Qin's comments come after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week warned China against supporting the Russian war effort.

"China can't have it both ways when it comes to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. It can't be putting forward peace proposals on the one hand while actually feeding the flames of the fire that Russia has started with the other hand," Blinken said at a press conference in Kazakhstan.

— Audrey Wan, Evelyn Cheng

New interactive map tracks changes in force posture on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, published a new interactive map of the battlefield in Ukraine.

The map, which was produced by the Washington-based think-tank's Transnational Threats Project, shows a timeline of how the force disposition and front lines have changed over the past year.

Take a look at the new tool here.

— Amanda Macias

Ukraine's army chief says the defense of Bakhmut should continue

A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade looks towards a Russian position from a frontline trench on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images

The head of Ukraine's armed forces told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the defense of Bakhmut, a besieged city in Donetsk that Russia claims to have effectively surrounded, should continue.

Zelenskyy held a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny and Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of forces in Bakhmut, specifically focused on the situation and "they spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut," the president's office said in a statement Monday.

Russia has been slowly advancing on, and surrounding, Bakhmut for weeks although fighting near and around the city has been going on for around seven months with both sides determined to capture and defend the industrial city, respectively.

Russia is seen to want to capture Bakhmut, which has been severely destroyed in the fighting, as a way to cut Ukrainian supply lines in the east, and sees it as a launchpad on to bigger cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Ukrainian analysts have downplayed the significance of Bakhmut, saying that even if the city falls into Russian hands the course of the war won't be changed. Both sides have committed so much manpower to the fight there, however, that neither side wants to capitulate.

Defense analysts at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War believe Ukraine is beginning to conduct some kind of "limited tactical withdrawal" in Bakhmut, however, and is looking to inflict as many losses on Russian forces as it can during the process

— Holly Ellyatt

Russia's defense minister visits occupied port city of Mariupol

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends an annual meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. 
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

Russia's Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited the Russian-occupied port city of Mariupol Monday, according to the country's Ministry of Defense.

Shoigu traveled to Mariupol, which is located on the Sea of Azov, to inspect what the ministry said was reconstructed infrastructure. Russia has occupied Mariupol since last May following a prolonged and bloody siege and bombing campaign that destroyed much of the city's buildings and infrastructure, and killed at least a thousand civilians, according to a conservative estimate by the UN.

The defense ministry said Shoigu visited a medical center as well as a new residential area composed of 12 five-story buildings and added that schools and kindergartens were also under construction.

Images released by the ministry showed Shoigu dressed in camouflage as he inspected the new facilities.

Reports suggest Russia has been trying to erase evidence of war crimes in Mariupol that took place during several months of bombing on the city, as well as erasing any signs of Ukrainian history and culture —changing street names, for example, and introducing the Russian curriculum in schools.

— Holly Ellyatt

Wagner Group chief says army HQ has barred his representative

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, claimed on Saturday that his mercenary fighters captured Bakhmut after nine months of intense fighting there.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia's mercenary force the Wagner Group, said Monday that one of his representatives was denied access to the headquarters of Russia's "special military operation."

Prigozhin said on his business' Telegram channel that he'd written to the commander of the "special military operation," as Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine, about the "urgent need to allocate ammunition" to Wagner units fighting in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Then, Prigozhin said, on Monday morning "my representative at the headquarters had his pass canceled and was denied access to the group's headquarters," according to a Google translation of his comment.

The Wagner Group founder said his units "continue to smash the Armed Forces of Ukraine near Bakhmut." But at the weekend, Prigozhin claimed that his fighters were being deprived of ammunition and that if they had to retreat from Bakhmut, the whole front line would collapse.

Wagner forces, made up of mercenary fighters and men recruited from Russian prisons who are fighting in return for an early release from jail, have made slow but steady progress in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Fighting is particularly intense in Bakhmut, with Prigozhin claiming last Friday that his forces have "practically surrounded" the city.

Prigozhin has previously openly criticized Russia's military leaders, however, creating a significant rift between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry and Kremlin.

— Holly Ellyatt

Fall of Bakhmut would not mean Russia has changed tide of war, Pentagon chief says

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was of more than symbolic importance than an operational one and it would not necessarily mean that Moscow had regained the momentum in its year long war effort.

A destroyed residential building in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2023.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

"I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value," Austin told reporters while visiting Jordan, adding that he would not predict if or when Bakhmut would be taken by Russian forces.

"The fall of Bakhmut won't necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight," Austin added.

— Reuters

Status of besieged Bakhmut unknown as 'tactical withdrawal' could be taking place

Ukrainian infantrymen with the 28th Brigade view damaged buildings while driving to a frontline position facing Russian troops on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The status of Bakhmut is unclear after conflicting reports at the weekend over how much of the city was controlled by Russian forces, and whether Ukrainain forces were starting to withdraw from parts of the city.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, said on Telegram Sunday that there were "no decisions or orders regarding retreat" and that "the defense is holding" in the city but also characterized the situation in Bakhmut and its outskirts as "very much like hell, as it is on the entire eastern front."

But analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank said Sunday that Ukrainian forces appear to be conducting a "limited tactical withdrawal" in Bakhmut, although they noted that "it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city."

The ISW said Ukrainian forces may be withdrawing from their positions on the eastern bank of the Bakhmutka River that dissects the city's eastern flank. But it added that while Russian sources claim their forces have captured eastern, northern, and southern parts of Bakhmut, and claim to be reporting from positions in eastern Bakhmut, it could not independently verify those claims.

The think tank noted, in any case, that it believes the "Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut remains strategically sound as it continues to consume Russian manpower and equipment as long as Ukrainian forces do not suffer excessive casualties."

"Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare," the ISW added.

Last Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia's mercenary force the Wagner Group, claimed his fighters had "practically surrounded Bakhmut" but also called for more ammunition for his units, saying "if Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse," signalling Wagner was experiencing more tensions with Russia's defense ministry following criticism of defense officials by Prigozhin.

— Holly Ellyatt

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