Ukraine said Tuesday it had pushed Russian forces from the flanks of Bakhmut but conceded that Moscow’s forces were pushing deeper inside the embattled town.
The announcement came as European leaders meeting in Iceland agreed to create a “register of damages” to record the wartime harm and destruction wrought by Russia in Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron said. It would be an initial step toward the prosecution of Russian leaders in the future.
A year after kicking Russia out of the Council of Europe (CoE) over its war in Ukraine, the leaders of the 46-nation pan-continental rights body gathered in Reykjavik, with the Ukraine conflict topping the agenda.
In Kyiv, authorities were due to host a Chinese special envoy to discuss Beijing’s proposals for ending the conflict.
Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said Ukraine had wrested back about 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) of a Russian pincer movement around Bakhmut, the epicenter of fighting in Russia’s invasion.
“At the same time, the enemy is advancing in some measure inside Bakhmut itself and is completely destroying the town with artillery,” she added on social media.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, had earlier said he visited forces near Bakhmut to hand out awards to Kyiv’s troops fighting in the longest battle of the invasion.
“Wagner’s men went into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap,” he said, referring to the Russian paramilitary group.
The British defense ministry said that “over the last four days, Ukrainian forces have made tactical progress, stabilising the flanks of Bakhmut to their advantage.”
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video shared by Russian military bloggers Tuesday that a US volunteer had died fighting alongside Ukrainian troops in the east.
“He came to meet us. Citizen of the United States of America,” he says, showing what he claims is the body of an American. It was not clear where or when the video was filmed.
The wave of Russian strikes overnight came just over a week after Kyiv announced it had shot down a Kinzhal nuclear-capable hypersonic missile for the first time, using US-supplied Patriot systems.
Russia denied Kyiv’s latest claim to have shot down six of the hypersonic missiles during an overnight barrage.
Ukraine’s mounting success in taking out dozens of Russian drones and missiles illustrates its bolstered air defenses, after a winter in which Moscow pummelled key infrastructure.
“Another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian air forces!” Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Twitter.
The defense ministry said Ukrainian air defense systems had knocked out a total of 18 missiles, including types the Kremlin had touted as “ideal,” as well as nine drones.
Another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian Air Forces! Last night, our sky defenders shot down SIX russian hypersonic Kinzhal missiles and 12 other missiles.
russian terrorists have no chance of prevailing over Ukraine. Their weapons can and should be countered by…
— Oleksii Reznikov (@oleksiireznikov) May 16, 2023
Reznikov later tweeted that Ukraine has officially joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE). He called it “another step towards common security space in Europe, which is impossible without Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance.”
Three people were injured in Kyiv and some rocket fragments fell on the capital’s zoo but neither staff nor animals were hurt, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.
Russia, meanwhile, said all its targets had been hit.
China’s special envoy, Li Hui, was expected to arrive in Kyiv for a two-day visit as part of a European tour to promote Beijing-led negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.
A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ukrainian authorities planned to further discuss Kyiv’s stance on the conflict and China’s peace mission.
He told AFP Ukrainian officials would make clear to Beijing that “ending the war with a compromise at the expense of Ukraine will not work.”
Li will be the highest-ranking Chinese diplomat to visit the war-torn country since Moscow’s invasion last year, three weeks after Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by telephone to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Xi, who has aimed to position China as a neutral mediator, and visited Moscow in March, has been criticized for refusing to condemn the Kremlin’s attack on its neighbor.
Li’s visit follows Zelensky’s whirlwind tour of major European capitals to urge allies to increase military support.
His tour to shore up military assistance to help make his troops more battle-ready began in Italy, with weekend visits to France and Germany, followed by a stop in the UK.
But Zelensky has yet to succeed in securing Western fighter jets to seize control of the skies, though UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced preparations to open a flight school to train Ukrainian pilots.
Sunak and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, attending the CoE meeting in Iceland on Tuesday, pledged to build an “international coalition” to provide fighter jet support for Ukraine.
Sunak and Rutte “agreed they would work to build (an) international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, supporting with everything from training to procuring F16 jets,” a spokesman for Downing Street said in a statement.
France has also offered to train Ukrainian fighter pilots, though Macron ruled out sending warplanes to Kyiv.
Ukraine also announced Tuesday that it had detained the head of the country’s supreme court in a $2.7 million bribery inquiry, part of anti-graft measures required for closer integration with the European Union.