Moscow statement is first admission that Ukraine is successfully recapturing ground around eastern city.
Russia’s defence ministry has said some of its troops have fallen back “to more advantageous defensive positions” near a reservoir north-west of the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
The statement on Friday was the first admission by Moscow that Ukraine was successfully recapturing ground around Bakhmut, a largely destroyed city with a pre-war population of about 70,000 that Russia has been trying to conquer for more than 10 months.
The Russian defence statement came hours after Kyiv said that its forces had advanced by about 2km (1.2 miles) around Bakhmut this week.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, said on Friday: “The enemy suffered great losses of manpower. Our defenders advanced 2km in the Bakhmut sector. We did not lose a single position in Bakhmut this week.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry condemned the UK for supplying Ukraine with the long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles that Kyiv wants to boost its chances in a counteroffensive – the first western country to do so.
Echoing comments from the Kremlin on Thursday, the foreign ministry said it considered “London’s decision to transfer Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine a hostile act leading to a serious escalation”. Moscow has said the UK’s move will require an “adequate response” from Russia.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who earlier this week said his forces needed more time before launching a major counteroffensive, also said Kyiv’s forces had pushed back Russian positions “on several directions”, without specifying where.
“Ukraine is much stronger now than last year or in any other year of this war for freedom and independence of our country,” the Ukrainian president said in a separate post on Twitter.
Zelenskiy said that he held a phone call with Rishi Sunak in which he thanked the UK for delivering the Storm Shadow missiles and “other irreplaceable military assistance”.
“We discussed further defence cooperation,” Zelenskiy added in a tweet.
The Russian defence ministry said it had repelled a surge of attempted Ukrainian attacks against its positions in eastern Ukraine. It said the attacks had taken place in the direction of Soledar, a town Moscow captured at the beginning of the year.
In a video message on Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner group has spearheaded the months-long assault on Bakhmut, strongly criticised the military leadership for “abandoning” its positions near the city.
“There was no tactical retreat … What happened was the outright flight of units of the ministry of defence from the flanks,” Prigozhin said, in a characteristic video outburst directed at the country’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.
“Stop lying … our flanks are falling apart … this is all leading to a massive tragedy for Russia,” Prigozhin said.
He said Ukraine had retaken strategic highlands, potentially putting the Wagner group at risk of encirclement.
Ukrainian intelligence said on Friday that Prigozhin’s public bickering with the army leadership confirmed “their fear of responsibility for the inevitable geopolitical defeat of Moscow”.
There has been intense speculation that Kyiv is about to launch a significant counteroffensive. Several Russian military bloggers claimed on Thursday that Ukraine had launched its much-anticipated offensive, breaking through parts of the frontline. But Ukrainian officials on Friday played down these reports.
“This situation has actually been going on in the east for several months,” Maliar said. “That’s it. Nothing more is happening.”
Military analysts have suggested that Ukraine’s localised offensive in Bakhmut appear to indicate it is trying to pin down Russian forces in the city.
“Ukraine seems to be attacking with forces that are unlikely to be related to the main effort,” said Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia studies programme at the CNA thinktank. “Hence hoping to fix Russian units at Bakhmut and roll back gains over the past few months, while setting the conditions for a major offensive that probably will take place elsewhere.”
Source : The Guardian