Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries has appeared to ditch plans to withdraw from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying its troops have been promised more arms by Moscow and suggesting they may keep up their assault on what Russia sees as a stepping stone to other cities in the Donbas region.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian and Russian media reported explosions across Russian-occupied Crimea, and Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday that its air defences had detected and destroyed 22 Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea overnight.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had said on Friday that his fighters, who have spearheaded a months-long assault on Bakhmut, would pull out after being starved of ammunition and suffering “useless and unjustified” losses as a result.
But in an audio message posted on his Telegram channel on Sunday, he said: “We have been promised as much ammunition and weapons as we need to continue further operations. We have been promised that everything needed to prevent the enemy from cutting us off [from supplies] will be deployed.”
A spokesman for Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment after Prigozhin’s latest statement.
Russian officials have repeatedly sought to allay concerns that their forces on the front line have not received adequate supplies. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday, referring to the Russian army as a whole, that they had “received the sufficient amount of ammunition” to effectively inflict damage on enemy forces.
‘More than enough’ ammunition
On the Ukrainian side, Serhii Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, said in response to questions about Prigozhin’s comments that Russian forces have “more than enough” ammunition.
He said Prigozhin’s comments are aimed at distracting from the heavy losses Wagner has taken by throwing so many troops into battle.
“Four hundred eighty-nine artillery strikes over the past 24 hours in the area around Bakhmut – is that an ammunition hunger?”
Prigozhin’s threat to pull out of Bakhmut highlights the pressure Russian forces are under as Ukraine makes its final preparations for a counteroffensive backed by thousands of Western-donated armoured vehicles and freshly trained troops.
The battle for Bakhmut has been the most intense of the conflict, costing thousands of lives on both sides in months of grinding warfare.
Ukrainian troops have been pushed back in recent weeks but have clung on in the city to inflict as many Russian losses as possible ahead of Kyiv’s planned big push against the invading forces along the 1,000-km (620-mile) front line.
Message to the ‘demons’
Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin has come out of an induced coma, after being seriously injured in a car bomb that Russia blames on Ukraine.
Prilepin insisted on Sunday that he would not be scared off, a day after being wounded in the blast that killed his friend and assistant.
“I tell the demons: ‘You will not intimidate anyone,'” Prilepin said in his first message since the incident. “God exists. We will win.”
Russia has blamed the blast that targeted the 47-year-old writer on Ukraine and the United States. Prilepin is a fervent supporter of the offensive in Ukraine.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) also said on Sunday that it had foiled an attempt by Ukrainian intelligence to attack a military airfield in central Russia with drones stuffed with explosives.
The pilot of a light aircraft and other members of what the FSB called a “sabotage group” were detained in the Tula region of Russia after flying in from Ukraine, it said in a statement.
Russia also continued with its missile attacks on Ukraine in anticipation of a counteroffensive, targeting an industrial site in the southern Mykolaiv region.
Air raid alerts blared for several hours overnight into early Sunday over roughly two-thirds of Ukraine, with officials saying that air defence systems shot down a number of drones, including one over Kyiv’s airspace.
Six members of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service were also killed during Russian shelling in the southern region of Kherson, Ukraine’s prosecutor general has said.
Ukraine is expected to soon start a much-anticipated counteroffensive to retake Moscow-held territory, including in the Zaporizhzhia region, which hosts Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog expressed concern over the possible escalation of hostilities.
“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said in a statement, using a different spelling for Zaporizhzhia, on Saturday.
“I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant.”