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Ukraine achieving some success in besieged Bakhmut, Russia says

A soldier jumps over a muddy road on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, on April 21. Ukrainian troops are targeting new Russian positions in Bakhmut with artillery and reconnaissance drones from Chasiv Yar. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian and Ukrainian forces are engaged in heavy fighting in Bakhmut, the eastern city where Ukrainian soldiers have held out against a months-long assault by the Russian army, officials of both countries said Thursday. But accounts differed on whether it’s the start of Kyiv’s much-anticipated spring counteroffensive.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the mercenary group Wagner, a key element of the Russian assault on Bakhmut, said the Ukrainian operation was “in full swing” and its forces were attacking his flanks.

“Unfortunately, in some places they are successful,” Prigozhin said in an audio message posted to Telegram. “All the units that have received the necessary training, weapons, equipment, tanks, everything else — they are already fully engaged.”

Later Thursday, he said the attack was “shaping up according to the worst of the predicted scenarios.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said his forces would benefit from more time and equipment before launching the counteroffensive.

In an interview published by the BBC and European broadcasters on Thursday, Zelensky said the operation could proceed now “and be successful,” but it would result in “unacceptable” losses for Ukrainian forces.

He said he had enough troops and they were mentally prepared for the counteroffensive, but “not everything has arrived yet” and the army needs “some things.” He made similar comments to The Washington Post this month, saying Ukraine would launch the assault “as soon as the weapons that were agreed with our partners are filled.”

Prigozhin said Zelensky “was being deceptive.”

The Wagner chief said territory that had been “taken with the blood and lives of our fighting comrades for many months, each day passing by tens or hundreds of meters,” was now being abandoned by Russian troops “virtually without a fight.”

The counterattack, whenever it is launched, will be closely watched in Western capitals. If Ukrainian forces are perceived as falling short in their goals, some here fear that pressure will grow on Zelensky to negotiate a peace deal with Moscow, or Western support could wane.

Moscow had pledged to capture Bakhmut — which analysts say is of questionable strategic value but has grown in significance as Moscow has sacrificed large amounts of troops and equipment in trying to take it — by Russia’s May 9 Victory Day holiday to commemorate the end of World War II. But as the day approached, it became clear the objective would not be achieved.

Prigozhin has posted videos railing against the Russian military for allegedly failing to provide him with enough ammunition to accomplish that goal.

The fighting in Bakhmut on Thursday follows news Wednesday of significant advances by Kyiv’s forces. The Ukrainian military said it was pushing Russian forces back, destroying combat vehicles and taking prisoners of war.

Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s ground forces commander, said Russian forces “could not resist the onslaught of the Ukrainian defenders” along some stretches of the front line and “retreated to a distance of up to two kilometers.”

The Ukrainian assault “exhausted” Wagner’s mercenaries, Syrsky said, “and forced them to be replaced in certain directions by less well-prepared units of the Russian regular troops, which were defeated and left.”

Andriy Biletsky, commander of Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, said Wednesday that his forces helped defeat units of Russia’s 72nd brigade. Two Russian companies were “completely destroyed,” he said in a video posted on social media, and a squad of Wagner fighters also “lost a lot.”

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said Thursday his country’s forces had achieved “partial success” in Bakhmut and had moved Russian forces back “little by little.”

But he pointed out that Bakhmut covers an area of 41 square kilometers and said success there “depends on many factors.”

“We are not going to surrender Bakhmut and will keep it as long as the military considers it necessary,” he said.

Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

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Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.