Ukraine briefing: Moscow open to extending Black Sea grain deal

A Ukrainian soldier drives an armored vehicle toward the besieged city of Bakhmut on Saturday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Black Sea grain deal, intended to prevent mitigate a food crisis by safeguarding Ukrainian grain shipments, is set to expire on March 18. After talks with U.N. officials in Geneva, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said in a statement on Monday that Moscow does not object to another extension — “but only for 60 days,” half the length of the preceding renewal. A U.N. spokesman said in a tweet on Monday that the United Nations “will go on doing everything possible to preserve the integrity of the agreement and ensure its continuity.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his forces are continuing to inflict heavy losses on attacking Russian fighters in the besieged front-line city of Bakhmut, where Kremlin-backed mercenaries concede the fight is growing more difficult as they approach the city center, bombarded by artillery and tank fire. “The defense of the fortress is well underway!” the commander of Ukraine’s land forces said in a statement Monday.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Battle for Bakhmut

  • The head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group described the situation in Bakhmut as “very difficult.” In a video message posted Sunday on Telegram, Yevgeniy Prigozhin said, “The closer we are to the city center, the harder the battles, the more artillery works against us, and the more tanks.” Wagner’s “assault squads are coming from multiple directions” in Bakhmut, but Ukraine is causing “significant losses” over the course of “tough battles,” the commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said, according to a Facebook post Monday by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
  • Almost all roads out of Bakhmut have been cut off by Russian troops and fierce fighting. Just one viable road out of the city remains, Highway T0504, also known as the “highway of life.” The crucial route is used by Ukrainian soldiers to move in fresh troops, ammunition and water — and to evacuate the wounded and the dead. Ukrainian soldiers say Russia’s forces are also aware of the road’s importance and have tried to shred it with artillery.
  • Russia’s military leadership could be letting the Wagner Group bear the brunt of casualties in the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city to weaken Prigozhin’s political influence within Russia, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank. Prigozhin and Russia’s military chiefs have had a number of public squabbles in recent months.

Battleground updates

  • Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Telegram that its forces killed more than 220 Ukrainian service members in the eastern Donetsk region in the past day and destroyed several combat vehicles and a long-range artillery piece. The Post could not independently verify the claims.
  • Russian shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv destroyed residential buildings and killed a man and a woman in their 40s, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said Monday on Telegram. Mykolaiv, an important port city and shipbuilding center, has been a key target since the start of the war.
  • Russia struck a school in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region with two missiles Monday, killing one resident, Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential office of Ukraine, said on Telegram.
  • Ukraine became a major arms importer in 2022, a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds. While the country was only the 14th-biggest arms importer for the period from 2018 to 2022, it jumped to third-largest in 2022. Imports of major arms by European states increased by 47 percent between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, according to the report.

Global impact

  • Britain’s government on Monday called Russia “the most acute threat” to its national security in its newly released “Integrated Review Refresh 2023,” which articulates national security policy and international strategy. While it named Russia the “biggest threat” to U.K. security in the region when the last review was published in 2021, “what has changed is that our collective security now is intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine,” the report said.
  • The United States has not yet seen the transfer of lethal assistance of weapons from China to Russia for battlefield use in Ukraine — but is watching carefully, National security adviser Jake Sullivan said, speaking to journalists from Air Force One.
  • The Council of the European Union decided Monday to extend sanctions against Russia for another six months. The measures against “those responsible for undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine” include travel restrictions, asset freezes, and a ban on making economic resources available to the 1,473 individuals and 205 entities listed. The sanctions are set to last until at least Sept. 15.
  • “Navalny,” a film about imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, won best documentary feature at the Oscars on Sunday night. The Kremlin critic was poisoned in Russia in 2020 by a banned chemical weapon that almost killed him. He blamed the attempted assassination on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denied involvement. Navalny made a recovery in Germany and returned in early 2021 to Russia, where he was then imprisoned. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that there may be an “element of politicization” in awarding the film an Oscar, Russian state outlet Tass reported.
  • Artifacts including a stone ax head and several swords stolen from Ukraine were returned to the country over the weekend. U.S. customs officials seized the items in September at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The metal swords arrived from Russia, and the ax head arrived from Ukraine. The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington hosted a repatriation ceremony for the artifacts on Friday.

From our correspondents

The Ukraine war’s environmental toll will devastate lives for decades: Since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded and civilians have come under near-constant bombardment by missiles and drones. But scientists say the war has also scarred the country’s natural environment — polluting its rivers and lakes, contaminating its soil, eviscerating its forests — a circumstance that experts fear could lead to a long-term increase in cancers and other illnesses among civilians, write Jeff Stein and Michael Birnbaum.

In cities rocked by airstrikes, chemicals used to extinguish fires are leaching into the groundwater, and asbestos and other pollutants from the rubble of destroyed buildings are cleanup hazards. Across Ukraine, the electrical transformers and substations that Russia has been targeting are leaking heavy fuel oil and carcinogenic chemicals.

The Ukrainian government says that so far, the war has led to more than $51 billion in environmental damage, and experts say the effects of the destruction will linger for a long time.