- Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on extending the Black Sea grain deal, Reuters reports.
- Ukraine didn't receive peace mediation proposal from China, or a proposal to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The Japan News.
- The AP reports Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin says more than 5,000 former criminals have been pardoned after honoring their contracts to fight in Russia's mercenary group against Ukraine.
The top commander of Ukraine's military said Saturday that his forces are repelling Russian troops in the arduous, grinding battle for the town of Bakhmut.
“The Bakhmut direction is the most difficult. Thanks to the titanic efforts of the defense forces, the situation is being stabilized,” Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi said in a post on Telegram, giving a synopsis of a telephone call with Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, Britain's chief of defense staff.
The seven-month battle for Bakhmut is the longest of the war and Russian forces there have closed in on three sides, deploying both regular soldiers and fighters of the mercenary Wagner Group.
Russian forces must go through Bakhmut to advance deeper into parts of the eastern Donbas region, though Western officials say that the capture of the city would have limited impact on the course of the war.
The British Defense Ministry said Saturday in its daily intelligence report on Ukraine that “Russia's assault on the Donbas town of Bakhmut has largely stalled. This is likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian force,” and added Russia is “likely conducting “a more defensive operational design after inconclusive results from its attempts to conduct a general offensive since January 2023” in its campaign in Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops have dug in at Bakhmut instead of pulling back. Some Western military experts said this tactic might be risky because the Ukrainians need to conserve forces for a counterattack.
According to the British ministry, however, the Russian assault in Bakhmut has “largely stalled ... a result of extreme attrition of the Russian force.”
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many who are older or have disabilities, were clinging on in grisly circumstances in Bakhmut and surrounding settlements.
"They are living in very dire conditions, spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the [underground] shelters," said Umar Khan of the ICRC, speaking to a news briefing via video link from Dnipro, Ukraine.
"All you see is people pushed to the very limits of their existence and survival and resilience."
In its latest report on human rights abuses in the war, the United Nations confirmed thousands of civilian deaths as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mostly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. Russia denies carrying out atrocities in what it calls a "special military operation."
U.S. senators from both parties urged the Biden administration Friday to share information that could assist the International Criminal Court as it pursues war crimes charges against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The letter to U.S. President Joe Biden from Democrats Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez, Richard Blumenthal and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republicans Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis noted that Congress passed legislation to give the administration more flexibility in assisting the ICC.
"Knowing of your support for the important cause of accountability in Ukraine we urge you to move forward expeditiously with support to the ICC's work so that Putin and others around him know in no uncertain terms that accountability and justice for their crimes are forthcoming," the letter said.
Although the United States is not a party to the ICC, Biden said last week that Putin has clearly committed war crimes, adding that the ICC warrant was justified.
Last week, the court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. The legal move will obligate the court's 123 member states to arrest Putin and transfer him to The Hague for trial if he sets foot in their territory.
Firing on Donbas
Russian forces fired a barrage of missile strikes Friday on northern and southern sections of the front line in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
At least 10 civilians were killed and 20 were wounded in several parts of Ukraine by Russian missile strikes, according to regional officials. Five people died in Kostiantynivka, in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province, when a Russian missile hit an aid station.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mentioned these attacks, saying, "The enemy must know: Ukraine won't forgive offenses against our people, won't forgive these deaths and injuries. All Russian terrorists will be defeated."
Officials in Kyiv said the Russians used S-300 anti-aircraft missiles in the attacks. According to Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Russians targeted the Center for the Registration of Homeless Persons, which recently served as an "invincibility point" where war-stricken residents could warm up, recharge their cellphones, and get food. Five refugees lived in the destroyed wing at the time of the attack.
Russian forces also used air-launched missiles, exploding drones and gliding bombs to attack several regions, Ukraine air force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat said.
Airstrikes and rocket and artillery attacks killed two civilians and wounded nine overnight in the town of Bilopillia in Sumy province, according to officials in the northeastern region. In southern Ukraine, Russian shelling killed one person in the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian forces are poised for a spring counteroffensive to dislodge Russian troops from occupied areas as warmer weather sets in and new weapons, including tanks, come in from the West.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's former president and now deputy head of the country's Security Council, said its forces were ready to repel a counterattack.
"Our General Staff is assessing all that," he said. Medvedev asserted that any Ukrainian attempt to take Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, could trigger a nuclear response from Moscow.
"An attempt to split part of the state away means an encroachment at the very existence of the state," he said. "Quite obviously, it warrants the use of any weapons. I hope our 'friends' across the ocean realize that."
Medvedev's warning echoes Russia's security doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or one with conventional weapons that threatens "the very existence of the Russian state."
Additionally, Medvedev said Western weapons, such as the U.S.-made Patriot air defense missile systems supplied to Ukraine, could be targeted. Russian officials claim that foreign instructors stationed in Ukraine to train Ukrainian soldiers would also be targeted.
"If Patriot or other weapons are delivered to the territory of Ukraine along with foreign experts, they certainly make legitimate targets, which must be destroyed," Medvedev said in a video posted to his messaging app channel. "They are combatants, they are the enemies of our state, and they must be destroyed."
Kyiv denies this assertion and says soldiers are receiving their training in the U.S.
Medvedev disclosed that the Kremlin wants to create a "sanitary cordon" of up to 100 kilometers around Russian-held areas, so that short- and medium-range weapons can't hit them.
He asserted that Moscow may even try to grab a chunk of Ukrainian territory stretching all the way to the Polish border.
Nordic air defense
To counter the rising threat from Russia, air force commanders from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark said Friday they have signed a letter of intent to create a unified Nordic air defense.
Their aim is to operate jointly based on known ways of operating under NATO, according to statements by the four countries' armed forces.
The move to integrate the air forces was triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year, commander of the Danish air force, Major General Jan Dam, told Reuters.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.