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Ukraine updates: Bakhmut battle 'badly damaged' Wagner group

March 29, 2023

The leader of the Wagner mercenary group says his forces have suffered heavy losses in Bakhmut. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy extended an invitation to Russian ally Xi Jinping to visit Kyiv. DW has the latest.

Ukraine Bachmut | Soldat der Wagner Gruppe
Image: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS/IMAGO

Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the infamous mercenary force known as the Wagner Group, said on Wednesday that his forces and their equipment have been "badly damaged" in the months-long campaign for control of the small but strategically important city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

"The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian army, and unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner Private Military Company," he said in an audio message, according to Reuters news agency.

According to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Wagner forces now control the majority of the city.

"ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced into an additional five percent of Bakhmut in the last seven days and that they currently occupy roughly 65 percent of the city," they wrote in a report.

Russia's gains include the city's main market area and Wagner troops are swiftly advancing on the city center, the think tank said.

Here are some of the other notable developments concerning the war in Ukraine on Wednesday, March 29:

Ukrainian troops eager to try Western tanks

Putin says sanctions could have negative impact on Russian economy

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Wednesday that Western sanctions against Russia could have a negative impact on its economy.

"The sanctions imposed against the Russian economy in the medium term could really have a negative impact," Putin said in a televised government meeting.

The Russian leader has repeatedly denied that sanctions have been harming the Russian economy while also threatening consequences for the sanctions themselves.

Putin said that unemployment and inflation in Russia were both low, but "the return to a growth trajectory should not make us feel relaxed."

Moscow has had to look for new markets for its major export — oil and gas — after European countries turned away from Russian fuels in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

Germany frees up €12 billion for military support over nine years

The German budget committee has approved a government request for a €12 billion fund (roughly $13 billion), lasting until 2032, to pay for military assistance to Ukraine.

The request from the defense ministry and foreign office was given the green light by the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag.

It includes around €8 million for direct deliveries to Ukraine as well as €4 million to replace equipment that the German Bundeswehr gives to the Ukrainian military.

"With the money, Ukraine can directly buy armaments with the support of the German government," Government lawmakers said in a statement.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius spoke of an "important step with which we can make clear that we are getting behind our long-term support for Ukraine in its fight against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

Photos 'remind us what happened,' photographer tells DW

DW spoke with Evgeniy Maloletka, a Ukrainian war photographer, who on Wednesday was named a regional winner in the World Press Photo Contest for his image of a pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher following a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol.

Maloletka said that "photographs will always remind us what happened there," even if you would rather forget.

He told DW about his photograph which became one of the defining images of the war. "Irina, 32 years old, injured, pregnant woman, was carried by rescue workers on a watermelon blanket," he said.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol
Evgeniy Maloletka's photo from an airstrike in Mariupol has won an awardImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/picture alliance

"She had a big wound on her body, you cannot see it in the picture," he added. "And unfortunately she and her baby did not survive."
Maloletka said the photo "was really important to show because Russian propaganda and Russian officials claimed that they bombed the hospital with no people in it."

The photographer described being in Mariupol during the Russian attacks.

"You tried not to stand on the streets, in the open air, you tried to hide inside buildings far away from the windows," he said. "It was really hard for the locals to find food. It was really hard to find somewhere you can charge your phone. There was no electricity, no gas, no water, no connection."

Denmark: Mystery object near Nord Stream 2 not a 'safety risk'

The Danish Energy Agency announced on Wednesday that the mystery object it discovered adjacent to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was an empty maritime smoke buoy which "does not pose a safety risk."

In a statement on Wednesday, the agency said the object was completely salvaged from the Baltic sea.

It cited Denmark's military as saying the salvage operation was carried out at a depth of 73 meters (roughly 239.5 feet). It added that a representative of the owner of the pipeline was present during the operation.

The majority stake in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines is held by Russian energy giant Gazprom. The remaining shares are owned by Dutch, French and German companies.

"Investigations indicate that the object is an empty maritime smoke buoy, which is used for visual marking," the agency said.

The pipeline, which was built to carry Russian gas to Europe, was previously targeted in a suspected attack several months after Russia's February 24, 2022, invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The New York Times said in a report earlier this month that "pro Ukrainian" groups were behind the attack on the pipelines. Kyiv vehemently denied any involvement.

Zelenskyy invites Xi to visit Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday that he had invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit his country.

"We are ready to see him here," Zelenskyy told the Associated Press.

Xi, who recently visited his "dear friend" Russian President Vladimir Putin on a state visit to Moscow, has not spoken with Zelenskyy since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, 2022.

"I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn't have," said Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian president also suggested that despite China's clear alliance with Russia, Beijing had not given Putin what he wanted during the recent Moscow meeting, namely weapons and ammunition to replace dwindling Russian stockpiles.

Zelenskyy pointed to Putin's announcement that Russia would move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as a distraction to divert attention away from the fact that China had not given any such assistance: "What does it mean? It means the [Chinese] visit was not good for Russia." 

Still, China, which has publicly proclaimed neutrality on the war in Ukraine, has remained closely allied with Moscow, both economically and diplomatically.

China has also put forth what it claims is a 12-point plan for "a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis."

Ukraine has voiced appreciation for China's involvement, yet President Zelenskyy has been clear that he would only consider negotiations after a withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

Kremlin says war with West 'will last for a long time'

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov Wednesday told reporters in Moscow that Russia's belligerence toward Western countries would not end anytime soon.

Asked how long his country's "special military operation" would last — it is illegal to call the war a war in Russia — Peskov replied, "If we talk about the operation in a broader sense… the confrontation with Western countries, hybrid war… this will go on for a long time."

Peskov continued to say, "we need to be resolute and self-confident and to consolidate around the president."

Sweden summons Russian ambassador after overt military threat

Sweden's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said it would summon Russia's ambassador to Stockholm after he released a statement on his embassy's website claiming Sweden and Finland would become "legitimate targets for Russian retaliatory measures, including those of a military nature," should they join the NATO military alliance.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said: "The Foreign Ministry will summon the Russian ambassador to make a clear statement against this blatant attempt at influence. Sweden's security policy is determined by Sweden — no one else."

Both Sweden and Finland reversed decades of military policy to seek admission into NATO in the wake of Russia's February 2022 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.   

IAEA boss Grossi arrives at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant 

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has arrived at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine. The largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia is under Russian control. 

The visit is Grossi's second since Russia launched its invasion. The IAEA and the wider international community have been in a state of constant alarm over the situation in Zaporizhzhia, which has been shelled by Russian troops and suffered frequent power outages, raising fears of a major nuclear accident. The IAEA has had inspectors at the plant since September, in a situation Grossi says, "is still perilous."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday told Grossi, "Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and adjacent territory, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure." 

Ukrainian forces shell Russian-controlled Melitopol, disrupting resupply chain

Ukrainian troops have begun shelling the Russian-controlled southeastern Ukrainian city of Melitopol according to media reports. Power outages have been reported and witnesses say the city's train depot has been damaged. The city, located some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, has been under Russian occupation for more than a year. 

Melitopol is a key Russian resupply hub as it is strategically located between Crimea and other cities in the region. Military observers say they expect to see a Ukrainian offensive soon, suggesting Kyiv's troops could attempt to reach the Black Sea (via Melitopol) to drive a wedge between occupying Russian forces.

ab, js/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)