Russians Tighten Noose on Ukraine’s Bakhmut, Putin Warns of Western Espionage

By Reuters
February 28, 2023Russia–Ukraine War
Russians Tighten Noose on Ukraine’s Bakhmut, Putin Warns of Western Espionage
A Ukrainian serviceman walks an empty street in the front line city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Feb. 25, 2023. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via Reuters)

KYIV—Russian forces on Tuesday pressed forward their weeks-long drive to encircle and capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut where the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces described the situation as “extremely tense.”

Capturing Bakhmut, scene of some of the war’s bloodiest battles, would open the way for Russia for taking the last remaining urban centers in the Donetsk region, one of four Moscow claims to have annexed in its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the FSB security service on Tuesday to bolster security in the four regions— and also to counter what he described as growing espionage and sabotage operations against Russia by Ukraine and the West.

He was speaking after a Russian regional governor said a drone had crashed near a natural gas distribution station on Tuesday in an apparent failed attack near the town of Kolomna, just 110 km (68 miles) southeast of Moscow.

Ukraine does not publicly claim responsibility for attacks inside Russia. If it was behind the Kolomna incident, it would be its closest attempted drone strike to the Russian capital since the conflict began over a year ago.

Earlier, Russia’s defense ministry also accused Ukraine of launching two attempted drone attacks against two southern Russian regions overnight but said they caused no damage.

Around Bakhmut, Russian troops, including mercenary fighters from the Wagner Group, are trying to cut the Ukrainian defenders’ supply lines and force them to surrender or withdraw.

“Despite significant losses, the enemy threw in the most prepared assault units of Wagner, who are trying to break through the defenses of our troops and surround the city,” Ukraine’s Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi claimed in a statement.

Russia’s state-run RIA news agency released a video clip which it said showed Russian Su-25 fighter jets roaring over Bakhmut. “We are glad they are ours,” says a man in the clip identified as a Wagner fighter, adding the jets helped them “psychologically.”

Ukraine’s military said Russia was shelling settlements around Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000 but now lies in ruins after months of intense trench warfare.

Russia, its forces replenished with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, has intensified its attacks right along the eastern front but its assaults have come at a high cost, claims Ukraine, which is expected soon to launch its own counter-offensive.

Putin Urges Vigilance

In Moscow, Putin told officials of the FSB—the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation—they must stop “sabotage groups” entering Russia from Ukraine, step up protection of key infrastructure and prevent any Western efforts to revive what he called terrorist or extremist cells on Russian territory.

“Western intelligence services have traditionally always been actively working in Russia, and now they have thrown additional personnel, technical and other resources against us,” said Putin.

“We need to respond accordingly,” he added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s position that it is open to peace negotiations but that Kyiv and its Western allies must accept Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—following referendums last September Kyiv and the West say were illegal.

“The constitution of the Russian Federation exists, and cannot be ignored. Russia will never be able to compromise on this, these are important realities,” Peskov told reporters.

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