Despite the high cost in lives, Ukrainian and Russian leaders said that the battle for Bakhmut would rage on, even as they brace for a war that they expect to widen and intensify as the weather warms.
Officials in both Kyiv and Moscow predicted that Ukraine, taking delivery of Western tanks, missiles and other arms, would soon launch a renewed push to reclaim territory lost in the east and south.
The Ukrainians “are preparing for various offensive operations — everyone knows that,” Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former president of Russia and vice chairman of President Vladimir V. Putin’s Security Council, said in comments released on Friday. “Our General Staff is taking this into account and preparing its solutions.” The spokesman for President Biden’s National Security Council said this week that Russia was planning new assaults, as well.
But even with that prospect looming, no one is predicting a letup in the long, brutal fight for Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that has experienced the bloodiest combat of recent months. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Thursday that Russian forces were “not giving up hope of taking Bakhmut at any cost,” but he said they appeared to be “losing significant strength and becoming exhausted.”
“The Bakhmut meat grinder continues,” said Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military group, which has spearheaded the monthslong Russian campaign to conquer the city.
But he added that the Kremlin needed to define its overall goals in Ukraine clearly, and despite the expectations of escalating offensives, he spoke of how to end a war that has exacted a fearsome toll on both nations.
“First of all, we need to decide where we’re going to or where we come to a halt,” Mr. Prigozhin said in an interview posted to the Telegram messaging network on Thursday. “As soon as this is determined absolutely clearly, then it will be clear when the S.V.O. will end,” he said, using the Russian initials for the Kremlin’s term for the invasion it launched 13 months ago, which it calls a “special military operation.”
He is not the first supporter of Russia’s war effort to suggest unclear aims and a weariness with a fight that has been much harder than expected.
Russian forces hold most of the eastern Donbas region that includes Bakhmut, and Mr. Putin has suggested that, at a minimum, Russia must complete the conquest of the two provinces that make up the Donbas and hold on to Crimea, which it seized in 2014. But his government has also claimed to annex two other provinces where it holds some territory, and Mr. Putin has at times hinted at erasing Ukraine as a separate state. He has also said, falsely, that Ukraine is controlled by Nazis whom Russia must eliminate.
The State of the War
Mr. Prigozhin — the once-secretive tycoon whose close personal ties to Mr. Putin helped him amass a fortune — has frequently criticized Russian military officials as inept and jealous, complaining that they withhold resources from Wagner. And his boastful social media presence increasingly has elements of pessimism; he suggested recently that Wagner could soon be a spent force and that a Ukrainian offensive could cut off its fighters in Bakhmut.
He has also edged closer to disagreeing publicly with Mr. Putin specifically, as in the suggestion that the war aims are unclear, though he did not cite the Russian leader by name. In his post on Thursday, he said: “I don’t know about the denazification of Ukraine. Are there Nazis there, or aren’t there? I haven’t crawled around in there.”
Western analysts debate whether Russia’s battered military, after suffering immense casualties and depleting its weapon stores, is capable of mounting a much broader campaign than the one it is sputtering through now.
Mr. Putin has sought help from China, which has provided surveillance drones but so far not weaponry, Western governments say, and he played host this week in Moscow to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China has aligned itself with Russia, without overtly taking sides in the war, and they share a common antagonist in the United States.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is very eager to keep China on the sidelines. He has tried to maintain ties to Beijing and has been careful not to criticize Mr. Xi publicly, and a senior Ukrainian official said on Friday that Kyiv was trying to arrange a phone call between the two leaders.
China is a vital diplomatic ally, trading partner and potential source of arms to Russia as the Kremlin faces growing international isolation and condemnation.
Last week, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Putin for shipping thousands of Ukrainian children from captured territory to Russia, where they are placed with families or in centers to indoctrinate them in pro-Russian views. Ukraine and human rights groups have called the effort outright abduction and a step toward erasing Ukrainian cultural identity. The European Union said it would organize an effort to track the missing children.
In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to President Biden on Friday, asking him to share with the I.C.C. any evidence of war crimes gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies. Though the United States has long refused involvement in the court, Congress last year authorized the sharing of intelligence with it specifically for the war in Ukraine.
The international court will open a field office in Ukraine to investigate violations of international law in the war, the court and the Ukrainian government said on Thursday.
Legal experts say that the Russian invasion itself might be a violation of international law, along with the thousands of aerial strikes on Ukrainian civilian targets, and there have been well-documented mass atrocities by Russian ground forces.
But there is also evidence that criminal conduct has gone in both directions. The United Nations said on Friday that it had documented summary executions of dozens of captured soldiers by both Ukrainians and Russians.
On the battle lines, both sides have poured huge resources into Bakhmut, which Russia has failed to seize despite eight months of fighting. Thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of troops have been killed or wounded there, and the Russian losses have been especially heavy, with Wagner often using fighters recruited from prisons in near-suicidal attacks.
The casualties have given Bakhmut symbolic meaning beyond the strategic importance of a small city that straddles a few highways and railroads. Though Russian forces have closed in on it from three directions, they have been unable to rout the Ukrainian defenders or wrest control of the last roads leading west out of the city, which Kyiv’s forces use to move people and supplies.
After months of shelling, the city’s buildings are almost all in ruins. There is street-by-street, building-by-building combat, with the opposing forces holed up in the blasted shells of abandoned factories, according to Russian and Ukrainian accounts of the fighting.
And yet some civilians remain. From a prewar population of 70,000, fewer than 3,500 residents are still in Bakhmut, including 32 children, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the surrounding Donetsk Province.
The Ukrainian authorities stepped up calls last month for all residents to leave the city and ordered the last aid groups there to depart, in what was then seen as a possible prelude to a withdrawal as Russian troops closed in.
“These are those who refuse point-blank to leave the city,” Mr. Kyrylenko told reporters. “A tremendous amount of work has been done to evacuate them.”
Some Bakhmut residents “are even hiding” from police officers and emergency workers who go to their homes, he said.
But dangers linger, even for those who escape the city. Early Friday, Russian missiles struck the city of Kostiantynivka, about 13 miles southwest of Bakhmut, according to a statement from Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office. One missile hit an “invincibility center,” one of thousands of makeshift shelters Ukraine has set up nationwide to provide basic services during Russian attacks.
Three women who had fled to Kostiantynivka from nearby areas, including one from Bakhmut, died in the strike, the prosecutor’s office said.
Reporting was contributed by Charlie Savage, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Victoria Kim and Monika Pronczuk.
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