Russia, Ukraine Battle for Bakhmut as ICC Seeks War Crime Arrest Warrants

REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak/File Photo
Ukrainian service members fire a howitzer M119 at a front line, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 10, 2023.

NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine (Reuters) – 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 stabilized in a van with a splint and painkillers before being taken to a medical center 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.”


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 defense 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 program 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.


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.