Russian forces have temporarily eased their attacks on the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut to regroup and strengthen their capabilities, a senior Kyiv official has said.
Separately, senior Ukrainian officials on Saturday indicated their forces were ready to launch a long-promised counteroffensive to recapture territory taken by Russia since the start of the war.
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Russia’s Wagner private army began handing over positions to regular troops this week after declaring full control of Bakhmut following the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
In a statement on Telegram, Ukraine Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said Russian forces were continuing to attack but that overall offensive activity had decreased.
“Yesterday and today there have not been any active battles – neither in the city nor on the flanks,” she wrote on Saturday, adding that Moscow’s troops were instead shelling the outskirts and approaches to Bakhmut.
“The decrease in the enemy’s offensive activity is due to the fact that troops are being replaced and regrouped,” Maliar said. “The enemy is trying to strengthen its own capabilities.”
Kyiv is expected to soon launch a highly anticipated counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied territory.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, told the BBC that the push could begin “tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or in a week”.
Presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak, speaking to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, said preliminary operations such as destroying supply lines or blowing up depots had already begun.
Ukraine’s top general, Valerii Zaluzhny, posted a sleekly produced video on Saturday showing Ukrainian troops swearing an oath and preparing for battle.
“The time has come to return what is ours,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military intelligence has claimed, without offering evidence, that Russia is plotting a “large-scale provocation” at a nuclear power plant it occupies in the southeast of the country with the aim of disrupting a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive.
A statement released Friday by the intelligence directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence claimed that Russian forces would attack the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the biggest in Europe, and then report a radioactive leak in order to trigger an international probe that would pause the hostilities and give the Russian forces the respite they need to regroup ahead of the counter-offensive.
In order to make that happen, Russia “disrupted the rotation of personnel of the permanent monitoring mission” of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that was scheduled for Saturday, the statement said. It did not offer evidence to back up any of the claims.
There was no immediate comment from the IAEA or Russian officials on the allegations.
The White House said it is watching the situation closely and has seen no indication that radioactive material has been leaked.
The claims mirrored similar statements Moscow regularly makes, alleging without evidence that Kyiv is plotting provocations involving various dangerous weapons or substances in order to then accuse Russia of war crimes.
The Zaporizhzhia power plant is one of the 10 biggest nuclear plants in the world. It is located in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region in southeastern Ukraine. The plant’s six reactors have been shut down for months, but it still needs power and qualified staff to operate crucial cooling systems and other safety features.
Fighting near it repeatedly disrupted power supplies and has fueled fears of a potential catastrophe like the one at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, where a reactor exploded in 1986 and spewed deadly radiation, contaminating a vast area in the world’s worst nuclear disaster.