Ukraine Reinforces Embattled Bakhmut, but Mission Is Unclear

Ukraine is sending reinforcements to the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, leading more troops into a bloody crucible that has already cost both sides staggering losses, where Russian forces have gradually tightened their grip.

A Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Wednesday that her government had begun deploying new fighters to Bakhmut, site of the most protracted battle of the war, but she did not say how many were being sent. More critically, Ms. Maliar, speaking on Ukrainian television, did not say what their role would be, in a battle that has left the ravaged Bakhmut a city in name only.

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

That last explanation seemed to gain some ground this week when another Ukrainian official, the economic adviser Alexander Rodnyansky, laid out the challenges in an interview with CNN.

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

Moscow turned its attention to Bakhmut last summer, but Ukrainian soldiers have held out there for months, even as Russian forces have gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city. Russia has rushed large numbers of troops to the front lines, including many newly mobilized, ill-trained recruits, giving Ukraine opportunity to inflict thousands of casualties — though at a high cost to its own fighters.

“The most difficult situation is still Bakhmut,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in his nightly address 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 ensure defense,” Mr. Zelensky said.

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

In an audio message released on social media on Wednesday, the head of the Wagner mercenary force that has spearheaded the Russian offensive in Bakhmut said there was no sign that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing from the city.

The skirmishing was not just on the battlefield.

On a trip to Uzbekistan on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tried to win over — or at least not lose ground in — Russia’s backyard. He was the first Biden administration cabinet official to visit Central Asia, a region of former Soviet republics that Moscow considers within 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 ties with Moscow, although some leaders and senior officials in the region have made recent skeptical remarks about the invasion.

Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, that the United States saw “zero evidence” that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was prepared to engage in serious peace talks, despite growing calls from some nations for such negotiations to start.

“To the contrary, the evidence is all in the other direction,” Mr. Blinken said.

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

The United States and its European allies insist that their priority for now is to increase military aid to Ukraine so that it can take back its territory and be in a better position if substantial talks eventually start. Only then would there be a chance for a “just and durable” peace, Mr. Blinken said.

But several of the countries urging peace talks soon have expressed some support for talking points on negotiations that China issued on Friday, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

The 12 points in that “peace plan” were reiterations of bland statements of principle that China has made throughout the conflict, including China’s longstanding declaration that there should be a cease-fire, and that all nations should respect one another’s inviolable sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In fact, neither side has shown any willingness to negotiate except on the basis of the other’s capitulation. Russia says its annexation of Ukrainian territory must be the baseline for talks; Ukraine says its precondition is retaking that territory.

On Wednesday, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, welcomed one of the Kremlin’s closest allies, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, amid U.S. warnings that Chinese support for Russia and its war in Ukraine was growing.

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

American officials have been dismissive of China’s proposals for peace talks, pointing to its lack of detailed ideas and arguing that it is aligned too closely with Russian interests. Even something as seemingly innoccuous as a cease-fire, they say, would just solidify Russia’s illegal gains.

Mr. Zelensky has been careful not to criticize the Chinese proposal, and instead seized on its release 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 provide 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 proved far more difficult for it than predicted.

“I really want to believe that China will not supply weapons to Russia,” Mr. Zelensky said at a news conference in Kyiv last week. “I am doing everything to prevent this.”

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

Mr. Blinken said Wednesday that he had no plans to meet with his Chinese and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 conference. He made clear the Biden administration was deeply skeptical of any discussion of imminent negotiations, ahead of an expected push by China for the warring sides to engage in peace talks.

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

Many nations are increasingly anxious about the war, especially given the economic impact, with global surges in food and energy prices, and have stuck to a neutral stance. These include the five Central Asian nations, two of which Mr. Blinken has been visiting, as well as some Group of 20 countries, including India.

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

One big question looming over the conference on Thursday is how India will steer the discussions of the war — whether it will support careful condemnation of it, and to what degree it will encourage the main parties in the conflict to enter into negotiations, though Ukraine will not be represented in Delhi.

Vinay Kwatra, the foreign secretary of India, said at a news conference in Delhi on Wednesday that “this is not the era of war,” repeating a line that Prime Minister Narendra Modi 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 last year with leaders of many nations, Mr. Kwatra said, the Indian president “has clearly stated that dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward to resolve the conflict.”

Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Mujib Mashal, David Pierson, Marc Santora and Eric Nagourney.

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