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Bakhmut may fall but it’s unlikely to be a turning point in the war, NATO chief says

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference following a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 16, 2022. 

Yves Herman | Reuters

The beseiged city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine could soon be fully captured by Russian forces, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, but it’s unlikely to represent a turning point in the war.

Russian forces, he said, had “suffered big losses but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days and therefore it is also important to highlight that this does not necessarily reflect any turning point of the war and it just highlights that we should not underestimate Russia. We must continue to provide support to Ukraine,” he said as he attended a meeting of EU defence ministers in Stockholm.

“Russia’s war of aggression grinds on against Ukraine and over the last weeks and months we have seen fierce fighting in and around Bakhmut and what we see is that Russia is throwing in more troops, more forces and what Russia lacks in quality, they try to make up in quantity,” he added.

— Holly Ellyatt

Police response to protests in Georgia causes concern

Protesters clash with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023.

– | Afp | Getty Images

Police in Georgia have reportedly used tear gas and stun grenades to respond to protests outside the Georgian Parliament on Wednesday.

Demonstrations in the capital erupted after after legislators gave initial backing to a draft law on “foreign agents” that would require any organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines.

Reuters witnesses in the capital, Tbilisi, saw police with riot shields making arrests along Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare running through the center of the city. Some demonstrators were seen throwing petrol bombs and stones, the news agency reported.

Protesters wave Georgian, Ukrainian and NATO flags during clashes in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023.

– | Afp | Getty Images

Critics see the draft law as authoritarian and akin to a Russian-style directive designed to restrict civil society and repress media freedom.

Georgia has a strained and tense relationship with Russia which invaded the country in 2008 in support of two pro-Russian separatist areas, similarly to its support of two pro-Russian self-declared “republics” in Ukraine.

Like Ukraine, Georgia applied to join the EU and NATO, fearing Russia’s potential attempts to spread, or impose, its influence. The protests this week have attracted pro-EU demonstrators who waved EU flags and chanted anti-Russian slogans.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said on Twitter that he was “strongly concerned about developments in Georgia,” adding that the “right to peaceful protest is at the core of any democracy.”

He said the “adoption of this ‘foreign influence’ law is not compatible with the EU path” which the majority in Georgia wants, he said, adding that “commitment to rule of law and human values is key to EU project.”

— Holly Ellyatt

EU looks at increasing ammunition production to support Ukraine

A Helicopter crew member of the 18th Separate Army Aviation Brigade carries boxes of ammunition, in eastern Ukraine on February 9, 2023 amid Russia’s military invasion on Ukraine.

Ihor Tkachov | Afp | Getty Images

The European Union needs to step up production of ammunition across the bloc to support Ukraine’s war efforts, officials said Wednesday as they gathered for a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden.

“The Ukrainians direly need ammunition in order to continue this war…We have to ramp up production in Europe. There’s various ways to go about this,” Sweden’s Defense Minister Pål Jonson said Wednesday.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Europe’s internal market chief Thierry Breton also said Europe needs to do more to support Kyiv. “The priority is to make sure we will be able to provide what is necessary to Ukraine,” he said.

He added that support to Ukraine needs to happen in three ways: member states need to give more of their ammunition stocks, they need to ramp up production and to allocate more EU funding to defense.

One of the ideas under discussion is the joint purchase of ammunition. This is similar to what the EU did during the pandemic when buying Covid vaccines together. In practice, this approach should allow the block to buy more stocks at lower prices.

— Silvia Amaro

Kremlin says Nord Stream attack reports are ‘coordinated’, demands open investigation

Western media reports on the blowing-up of the Nord Stream gas pipelines are a coordinated bid to divert attention and Russia is perplexed that U.S. officials can assume anything about the attacks without an investigation, the Kremlin said on Wednesday.

The New York Times, citing intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials, reported on Tuesday that a pro-Ukraine group — likely made up of Ukrainians or Russians — was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany last September.

In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 2022 in At Sea.

Swedish Coast Guard | Getty Images

Germany’s ARD broadcaster and Die Zeit newspaper said the attack was carried out by five men and one woman who rented a yacht and used false passports.

“Obviously, the authors of the attack want to divert attention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state RIA news agency, adding that the information had been planted.

“How can American officials assume anything without an investigation?”

“The very least that the Nord Stream shareholder countries and the United Nations must demand is an urgent, transparent investigation with the participation of everyone who can shed light,” Peskov said.

The Nord Stream 1 shareholders are Russia’s state energy firm Gazprom, Germany’s Wintershall and E.ON, Dutch company NV Nederlandse Gasunie and France’s Engie.

Gazprom is the sole shareholder in the parallel Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was constructed with financing from Wintershall, Engie, Austria’s OMV, Shell and Germany’s Uniper.

Russia has repeatedly complained about being excluded from European probes into the explosions.

“We are still not allowed in the investigation. Only a few days ago we received notes about this from the Danes and Swedes,” Peskov said. “This is not just strange. It smells like a monstrous crime.”

The undersea explosions, seven months into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, occurred in the exclusive economic zones of Sweden and Denmark in the Baltic Sea. Both countries have concluded the blasts were deliberate, but have not said who might be responsible.

Russia, without providing evidence, has at various times accused Britain and the United States of blowing up the pipelines, which they deny. The ruptured pipelines are set to be sealed up and mothballed as there are no immediate plans to repair or reactivate them, sources familiar with the plans have told Reuters.

— Reuters

Russia faces a strategic dilemma along the front line, UK says

A Ukrainian serviceman stands at a fortified position at an undisclosed location next to the Vuhledar front line in Ukraine on March 7, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Russian forces likely face a dilemma over where they should focus their offensive efforts along the front line toward Vuhledar, a town to the south of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

“Until recently, the Russian command likely saw a breakthrough at Vuhledar as a key way to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough in Ukraine’s lines,” the ministry said on Twitter.

“Russian planners are likely facing the dilemma of attempting another Vuhledar assault or supporting intense fighting further north near Bakhmut and Kremina,” it noted.

The ministry also commented on the public rift between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries fighting in Donetsk.

It noted that, by releasing a video of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visiting troops in eastern Ukraine earlier this week, there is “a realistic possibility that this was partially in response to recent footage of the owner of Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, visiting his fighters on the front line.”

“Wagner is in a high-profile dispute with the Russian Ministry of Defence and Shoigu is likely sensitive to being compared to Prigozhin. The only deployed Russian field commander shown in the video was Colonel General Rustam Muradov. It is notable that Muradov is responsible for the Vuhledar sector of Donetsk Oblast, where several assaults have failed in the last three months.”

— Holly Ellyatt

Three reasons why Ukraine is fighting on in Bakhmut

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm Howitzer towards Russian positions, near the city of Bakhmut, on March 4, 2023.

Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

After seven months of fighting over the industrial city of Bakhmut in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, it’s not surprising that neither Ukraine nor Russia want to capitulate over its defense — or capture.

But now it looks increasingly likely that Russia could be gaining the upper hand. On Wednesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s mercenary forces fighting in Bakhmut, said that Wagner had taken full control of the eastern part of the city.

Despite its forces appearing vulnerable to encirclement, Ukraine vowed on Monday to continue defending the city and to send in reinforcements.

Both Russia and Ukraine have thrown masses of personnel into their bids to capture, and defend, Bakhmut, respectively, with both claiming to have inflicted hundreds of losses on each others’ forces on a daily basis.

Aside from atoning for these sacrifices with some kind of victory in Bakhmut, there are several other reasons why both sides have a reason to continue fighting until the bitter end, ranging from the symbolic to the militarily expedient.

Read more here: Ukraine is vowing to defend ‘fortress’ Bakhmut as Russian forces surround it: Here are 3 reasons why

Russian mercenaries claim they control eastern Bakhmut

The leader of Russia’s mercenary forces fighting in Bakhmut said Wednesday that his private military company, the Wagner Group, had taken full control of the eastern part of the city, according to comments published by Russian state news outlet Tass.

“Wagner PMC units have occupied the entire eastern part of Bakhmut. Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under the control of the Wagner PMC,” Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was quoted as saying by Tass, citing comments made on Prigozhin’s Telegram channel. CNBC was unable to verify the claims.

Ukraine gave a military update Wednesday in which it noted that Ukraine had repelled over 100 attacks on the Donetsk region over the past day, including on Bakhmut, but said Russian forces were “continuing their unsuccessful offensive operations” in the area.

A repainted mural depicting the logo of Russia’s Wagner Group on a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 19, 2023.

Darko Vojinovic | AP

Russia sees the capture of Bakhmut, a city it refers to as “Artemovsk” or “Artyomovsk,” as a key strategic goal, as it looks to cut off Ukrainian supply routes in eastern Ukraine, but the battle for Bakhmut is a also symbolic one for the Wagner Group as it seeks to prove its credibility to Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

Prigozhin has had a long-running spat with defense officials in Moscow, criticizing its strategy in the war and, most recently, suggesting that the ministry had not responded to his request for urgent ammunition deliveries for his troops. Prigozhin suggested this could be because of “bureaucracy or betrayal.”

— Holly Ellyatt

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

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

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

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