Putin’s troops have retreated from one area near eastern town of Bakhmut, Moscow admits
Vladimir Putin’s troops have retreated from one area near the eastern town of Bakhmut, the Defence Ministry in Moscow confirmed on Friday.
It said they had taken up what it described as “more favourable positions” near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Putin’s “private” Wagner army whose troops have done the bulk of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, said that what the defence ministry had described was in fact a “rout” - not a tactical withdrawal.
Local experts said the Russian military units appeared to have retreated several kilometres.
Prigozhin, who has been openly feuding with the Defence Ministry for months, has repeatedly accused the top brass of sabotaging Wagner’s push for Bakhmut and this week accused them of doing too little to protect Bakhmut’s flanks thus allowing Ukrainian forces to retake some ground.
Ukrainian forces “likely” broke through some Russian lines in local counter-attacks around Bakhmut, military experts had said earlier on Friday.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi claiming Russian forces had retreated up to two kilometre (1.24 miles) behind their lines.
But the Defence Ministry in Moscow insisted that Rusian forces had repelled a surge of attempted Ukrainian attacks against its positions in eastern Ukraine.
The ministry said in a statement that Ukraine had deployed more than a thousand troops and up to 40 tanks in 26 attempted attacks across a frontline extending over 95 kilometres (59 miles). It said the attacks had taken place in the direction of the town of Soledar, which is held by Moscow's forces.
“All the attacks by Ukrainian army units were rebuffed,” the ministry said. “No breakthroughs in the defensive lines of Russian forces were allowed to take place.”
The claims from Moscow could not be independently verified.
Moscow reacted after Russian military bloggers, writing on Telegram, reported what they said were Ukrainian advances north and south of Bakhmut in the eastern province of Donetsk, with some suggesting a long-awaited counter offensive by pro-Kyiv forces had started.
There was little evidence to confirm that such a major assault had begun.
But Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Friday that her country’s forces had advanced by about a mile around Bakhmut this week.
She urged Ukrainians to disregard what she described as Russian disinformation about the situation in and around the town, where Ukraine has held on to some parts in about 10 months of fierce fighting.
“How does the enemy cover the battles in Bakhmut? (It) praises itself, talks about supposed success and invents stories about our military command,” Ms Maliar wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
“At the same time, the enemy gives false information about the lack of weapons, which probably aims to justify the real situation.”
Describing what she called “the real situation” over the past week, she said “the enemy failed to carry out its plans; the enemy suffered great losses of manpower; our defenders advanced 2 km (1.2 miles) in the Bakhmut sector; we did not lose a single position in Bakhmut this week.”
Her claims could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had earlier said the full-scale offensive had yet to start.
“Statements circulated by individual Telegram channels about ‘defence breakthroughs’ that took place in different areas along the line of military contact do not correspond to reality,” the Russian defence ministry said in a Telegram post.
“The overall situation in the area of the special military operation is under control,” it added in a statement, using the Kremlin’s description of the war in Ukraine.
The fact the Russian ministry felt obliged to release the statement reflects what Moscow acknowledges is a “very difficult” military operation.
Ukraine said it has pushed Russian forces back over the past several days near Bakhmut, while a full-blown counter-offensive involving tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of Western tanks is still being prepared.
“We still need a bit more time,” Mr Zelensky said in an interview with European broadcasters.
The Institute for the Study of War tweeted: “Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localised counter-attacks near Bakhmut, prompting responses from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
“Ukrainian forces continued to conduct successful but localised counter-attacks around Bakhmut on May 11, likely constraining Russian offensive efforts.”
It added: “The deployment of low-quality Russian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut suggests that the Russian MoD has largely abandoned the aim of encircling a significant number of Ukrainian forces there.”
It was not clear if Ukrainian forces were attacking in force or just mounting armed reconnaissance raids.
Prigozhin on Thursday said Ukrainian operations were “unfortunately, partially successful”.
He called Mr Zelensky’s assertion that the counter-offensive had not yet begun “deceptive”.
The Ukrainian president said his forces had already received enough equipment from Western allies for their campaign but were waiting for the full complement of armoured vehicles to arrive.
Seperately, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in its latest update that Russia has resumed missile strikes from its navy ships.
According to the MoD, Russia suspended Russian Navy land attack cruise missile strikes (LACMs) in March in order to restock supplies.
Earlier this month, however, ships launched eight missiles strike suggesting that the Russian military views the tactic as “a key capability to strike deep into Ukraine to disrupt anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensives”.
“More strategically, Russia also sees conventional SAGARIS and other LACMs as having an important role in any hypothetical conflict with NATO,” the MoD added.
In a major step up in Western military support for Ukraine, Britain said it was sending Storm Shadow cruise missiles that would give Kyiv the ability to strike deep behind Russian lines.
The missiles “are now going into, or are in, the country itself,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Commons, stressing they were being supplied so they could be used within Ukraine.
Western countries including the US had previously held back from providing long range weapons for fear of provoking Russian retaliation.
Mr Wallace said Britain, which has led the West in arming Ukraine, had weighed the risk.
The Kremlin earlier said if Britain provided these missiles it would require “an adequate response from our military”.
The war in Ukraine is at a turning point, with Kyiv poised to unleash its counter-offensive after six months of keeping its forces on the defensive, while Russia mounted a huge winter offensive that failed to capture significant territory.
Moscow’s main target for months has been Bakhmut, which it has yet to fully capture despite the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.