Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his country that Russia was throwing all resources available into its military campaign to stop Kyiv’s troops from pressing their counteroffensive in the south and east of the country.
Zelenskyy comments on Friday came as Ukrainian officials again acknowledged that the much-anticipated operation by Ukraine to push Russian forces back was progressing at a far slower pace than some had anticipated, though new reports of battlefield advances by Ukraine have emerged.
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“We must all understand very clearly – as clearly as possible – that the Russian forces on our southern and eastern lands are investing everything they can to stop our warriors,” Zelenskyy said in his daily evening address to the country.
“Every thousand metres we advance, every success of each of our combat brigades deserves gratitude,” he said.
Zelenskyy also said that he had received an “important report” on the security situation in neighbouring Belarus, which he was closely monitoring, though there were “no large-scale threats” currently.
“Our full focus is on the front line,” he said.
The Ukrainian president’s comment on Belarus came as news emerged that Russia’s Wagner mercenary group had reached an agreement to train Belarusian troops.
The Belarusian defence ministry said in a statement on Friday that an agreement has been reached with Wagner to develop a roadmap “for the near future for training and transfer of experience between units of different branches of the armed forces”.
The defence ministry also released a video showing Wagner fighters instructing Belarusian soldiers at a training ground near the town of Asipovichy, about 90km (56 miles) southeast of the capital, Minsk.
The ministry did not specify how Wagner fighters were involved in the military training in Belarus, where the mutinous mercenary force was promised sanctuary after calling off its rebellion against the Russian military leadership last month.
Belarus has emerged as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in his war on Ukraine.
‘Advancing not so quickly’
The head of the Ukrainian president’s office Andriy Yermak was the latest official to acknowledge on Friday that the fighting had been difficult for Ukrainian forces, and the offensive was “advancing not so quickly”.
Western allies, who have supplied billions of dollars in weapons to Kyiv, were not putting pressure on it to advance faster, said Yermak, who is seen as Zelenskyy’s right-hand man.
“There is no pressure, just a question: How can we help you further?” he said.
Ukraine’s General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commander of Ukrainian forces in the south, said after meeting with Zelenskyy on Friday that his troops were “systematically moving the enemy out of their positions”.
Enemy losses over the past 24 hours were equivalent to at least 200, he wrote on Telegram.
Russia’s defence ministry, in its daily report on Friday, said its forces had repelled 16 Ukrainian attacks on the eastern front, including near the long-contested town of Maryinka and in the strategic village of Klishchiivka, on Bakhmut’s southern fringe.
Military analyst Serhiy Hrabskyi told Ukrainian NV radio that in the south of the country, “the situation is very difficult in advancing towards Berdyansk” – referring to a port on the Sea of Azov.
“The enemy is offering resistance to stop our advance southward,” he said.
Ukraine’s weeks-old counteroffensive has reportedly focused on capturing villages in the southeast of the country in a drive towards the Sea of Azov and areas near the eastern city of Bakhmut, which was taken by Russian forces in May after months of bloody battles led primarily by Wagner fighters.
Ukrainian forces hope to cut off a land bridge Russian forces have established with the annexed Crimean peninsula.