Russia, Ukraine battle for Bakhmut as ICC seeks war crime arrest warrants
Ukraine's future hinges on the outcome of fighting with Russia in and around Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, with both sides describing relentless battles as Moscow intensifies a winter campaign to capture the small eastern city.
In what would be the first international war crimes cases arising from Russia's invasion, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to seek the arrest of Russian officials for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine and targeting civilian infrastructure, a source told Reuters.
Moscow would be certain to reject arrest warrants against its officials. But an international war crimes prosecution could deepen Moscow's diplomatic isolation over a campaign that has killed thousands of civilians and drawn Europe's fiercest fighting since World War Two.
Bakhmut has become the main focus of Russia's assault, with months of bloody infantry battles inflicting heavy losses on both sides. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city's east but so far failed to encircle it.
Zelenskiy said in a video address late on Monday that Ukraine's future depended on the outcome in Bakhmut and other war-torn areas in the country's eastern Donetsk region.
"It is very tough in the east -- very painful. We have to destroy the enemy's military power. And we shall destroy it," Zelenskiy said.
Russia says taking Bakhmut would open a path to capture all of Donetsk, a central war aim. The Ukrainian military says it has not pulled out of Bakhmut because it is inflicting huge losses on the Russian assault force which will make it easier to stage a counterattack later this year.
Near Kreminna, north of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers said on Monday they were repelling intensified attacks.
In a forest some 8 km (5 miles) from the front, cannons boomed, targeting enemy positions to the northeast. Explosions rumbled constantly in the distance, a sign of heavy fighting.
Reuters reporters saw a soldier being brought from the front with a badly wounded leg. He was stabilised in a van with a splint and painkillers before being taken to a medical centre further from the front.
"Two or three weeks ago the fighting was at its peak but it has calmed down a bit," said Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old medic. "There is a lot of artillery and mortar fire."
WAR CRIMES PROBE
Ukraine and its allies in the West say Russia has committed "crimes against humanity" during its more than year-long invasion by targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, accusations Moscow denies.
The ICC, which opened a probe into possible war crimes in Ukraine last year, is expected to seek its first warrants against Russian officials in relation to the conflict "in the short term", a source with knowledge of the matter said.
It was unclear which Russian officials the prosecutor might seek warrants against or when they might come, but they could include the crime of genocide, the source said.
The ICC prosecutor's office declined to comment. Russia's defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, said the ICC had no jurisdiction over the country since Moscow withdrew its backing in 2016.
"The ICC is an instrument of neo-colonialism in the hands of the West," he said.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, saying its attacks are all intended to reduce Kyiv's ability to fight. It has not concealed a programme under which it has taken thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, but presents it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
Kyiv says thousands of deported Ukrainian children are being adopted into Russian families, housed in Russian camps and orphanages, given Russian passports and brought up to reject Ukrainian nationality.
The U.N. genocide convention defines "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" as one of five acts that can be prosecuted as genocide.
CHINA'S XI TO RUSSIA
As the Bakhmut fighting grinds on, Moscow appeared on the cusp of one long-sought diplomatic breakthrough: several sources told Reuters that China's President Xi Jinping could visit Russia as soon as next week.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The Kremlin said it had nothing to announce yet.
President Vladimir Putin has touted such a visit as a show of support, but it could be overshadowed by the possibility that Xi may separately speak by video link to Zelenskiy for the first time since the invasion.
Plans for talks between Zelenskiy and Xi were reported by the Wall Street Journal. Reuters could not immediately confirm them and Ukraine's president's office did not immediately respond.
Russia agrees to extend Ukraine grain deal
Russia is not opposed to an extension of the Black Sea “grain deal” originally brokered last August, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said on Monday. The diplomat made the remarks following negotiations in Geneva with representatives of the UN.
“The Russian side, acknowledging the package nature of the Istanbul agreements tabled by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, does not object to another extension of the Black Sea initiative after the expiration of its second term on March 18, but only for 60 days,” Vershinin told reporters.
The “grain deal” was initially reached last August and is designed to facilitate exports of foodstuffs from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, as well as re-enable the export of grain and fertilizer from Russia. The scheme was originally set to run for a 180-day period, and was later extended for the same amount of time.
However, Moscow has repeatedly criticized the arrangement, insisting it was not working as intended. According to Russia, the deal has effectively only enabled commercial exports of grain from Ukraine, with food flowing to Europe rather than to the needy countries of Africa and Asia, while Russian fertilizer and grain exports remained blocked by the West.
“Russian agricultural exports are being blatantly hindered, no matter how much the Europeans and Americans, who are used to telling lies, try to convince everyone otherwise,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier this month. Moscow has urged the West to “stop playing the food card” and identified the main issue with the deal as “sabotage by Western countries” of the Russia-UN memorandum.
** Russian conscription age to change
Members of Russia’s parliament have introduced an amendment to national laws on military and alternative service, which would gradually raise the conscription age bracket for Russian men by three years.
Currently, men aged 18 to 27 can be enlisted to serve in the Russian armed forces, or in civilian roles, in the case of conscientious objectors and others who refuse military service. The bill sponsored on Monday by a group of lawmakers led by Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the State Duma defense committee, would move the bracket up over several years, reaching 21 to 30 in 2026.
The change is meant to protect those in their late teens and early 20s from disruptions to their tertiary education, applying to studies at vocational schools and universities, the authors of the bill explained.
Students who have the legal right to postpone their service under Russian law would not have to report to conscription centers to prove their status and undergo medical evaluations, as they currently do. In addition, the Defense Ministry will save money, as it will no longer have to pay medics to examine young students who are, in any case, not conscripted.
The idea of increasing the conscription age was proposed by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in December. During a report to President Vladimir Putin, he also suggested raising the strength of the Russian standing army to 1.5 million, citing the threat posed by NATO in Europe.
** Two civilians wounded in Donetsk after Ukrainian drone attack
Two civilians were wounded in Donetsk after an explosive object was dropped from a Ukrainian drone, the city’s mayor, Alexey Kulemzin, said on Monday.
According to the mission of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to the Joint Control and Coordination Center (JCCC) for issues related to Ukraine’s war crimes, the object was dropped in Donetsk’s suburb of Staromikhailovka at 3:00 p.m.
"As a result, two civilians - men born in 1981 and in 1982 - were wounded. They were taken to hospital," he wrote on his Telegram channel.
Several shelling attacks were reported in Donetsk during the day. Three civilians were wounded and the building of a school was damaged.