The leader of Russia’s Wagner private army said on Thursday Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive was already underway and making gains on the outskirts of the eastern city of Bakhmut, while Kyiv said its main effort had not yet started.
Ukrainian operations were “unfortunately, partially successful”, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose force of mercenaries and convicts recruited from prison has led Russia’s main military campaign in Bakhmut, said on social media.
Kyiv says it has pushed Russian forces back over the past two days near Bakhmut in small-scale local assaults, but a counteroffensive involving tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of new Western tanks has yet to begin.
“We still need a bit more time,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview with European broadcasters released earlier on Thursday.
Ukrainian forces had already received enough equipment from Western allies for their campaign, but were waiting for the full complement to arrive to reduce casualties, Zelenskiy said.
“With [what we have] we can go forward and be successful,” he said. “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable.”
Prigozhin, a once secretive figure who has lately issued daily statements denouncing the Russian command for failing to adequately supply his fighters, said Zelenskiy was being “deceptive” and the Ukrainian offensive was already underway.
While Prigozhin’s forces have been fighting in the centre of the city, he has said Ukraine is making gains on its flanks in areas defended by regular Russian troops, some of whom have fled.
The war in Ukraine is at a turning point, with Kyiv poised to unleash its new counterstrike after six months of keeping its forces on the defensive, while Russia mounted a huge winter offensive that failed to capture significant territory.
Western allies are sending hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles to Ukraine for its counteroffensive and have trained thousands of Ukrainian troops abroad.
Moscow’s main target for months has been the small eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which it has come close to capturing but not quite taken in what would be its sole prize after months of the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.
Prigozhin said on Tuesday that a Russian brigade had fled from the trenches, giving up a swathe of land southwest of Bakhmut. A Ukrainian unit claimed to have routed the brigade, destroying two of its companies.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces said on Wednesday that Russian forces had retreated in places by as much as 2 km at the front line.
The Russian defence ministry has not commented on those reports, but in remarks overnight Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that the war was “very difficult”. He said he had no doubt that Bakhmut “will be captured and will be kept under control”.
In anticipation of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia has resumed air strikes on Ukraine over the past two weeks after a lull of nearly two months. Moscow says Ukraine has used drones to strike occupied areas and Russian territory near the border.
In the latest report, the governor of Russia’s Bryansk region bordering Ukraine said a drone had hit a fuel storate depot. No one was hurt. Kyiv does not comment on such incidents.
A Western official said on Thursday that Britain has supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles.
CNN first reported the decision and said Britain had received assurances from the Ukrainian government that these missiles would be used only within Ukrainian sovereign territory and not inside Russia.
Some Ukrainian officials have tried to manage expectations for their counteroffensive, cautioning against expecting a swift repeat of Ukraine’s big military successes last year, when it pushed Russian forces back from Kyiv’s outskirts and recaptured swathes of occupied territory in unexpected breakthroughs.
Russia is determined to defend the sixth of Ukraine’s territory that it has occupied and claims to have annexed forever. In the six months since the last major Ukrainian advance it has built extensive fortifications along the front. Penetrating that with an armoured assault would be far more complicated than anything Ukraine’s forces have attempted yet.
In Brussels, NATO’s top military official said the war would increasingly be a battle between large numbers of poorly trained Russian troops with outdated equipment, and a smaller Ukrainian force with better Western weapons and training.
Admiral Rob Bauer, a Dutch officer who is chair of NATO’s military committee, said Russia was deploying T-54 tanks – an old model designed in the years after World War Two.
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