Ukraine forces are advancing along parts of the front line against Russian troops near the war-torn eastern town of Bakhmut.
“Our soldiers are moving forward in some areas of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, said on social media on Saturday.
“The defensive operation in the Bakhmut direction continues.”
Russia acknowledged on Friday its forces had fallen back north of Ukraine’s ruined eastern city in a retreat the head of Russia’s Wagner private army called a “rout” not a “regrouping”.
In its latest bulletin, Russia’s defence ministry said its forces gained control over another block in Bakhmut.
“The units of the Airborne Forces provided support to the assault units and pinned down the enemy on the flanks,” it said.
The ministry often uses the term “assault units” to denote the Wagner private militia, which has been spearheading the assault on Bakhmut at great cost in casualties.
Aircraft shot down
Videos posted on Russian social media, meanwhile, showed a helicopter apparently being shot down over Russia’s Bryansk region, bordering Ukraine.
The state news agency TASS cited an emergency services official as saying preliminary information indicated the engine caught fire before the crash near Klintsy, 40km (25 miles) from the border.
However, a video posted on the Russian pro-war Telegram channel Voyenniy Osvedomitel showed a helicopter high in the sky exploding, then plunging earthwards in flames.
A Russian Su-34 warplane also crashed in Bryansk, TASS reported. It was unclear what brought it down.
Russia said Ukraine used British-made long-range missiles to target civilian sites in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, wounding six children.
The United Kingdom on Thursday became the first country supply Kyiv with long-range cruise missiles, which will allow it to hit Russian troops and supply dumps far behind the front lines.
“Storm Shadow air-to-air missiles supplied to the Kyiv regime by Great Britain were used for the strike, despite London’s declarations that these weapons would not be used against civilian targets,” Russia’s defence ministry said.
It added Russia downed two Ukrainian aircraft – an Su-24 and a MiG-29 – that launched the missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Rome on Saturday for talks with government officials and Pope Francis.
In April, the pope announced the Vatican was involved in a peace mission to try to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine but declined to give further details. Both Moscow and Kyiv publicly expressed surprise over his comments at the time.
It will be Zelenskyy’s first trip to Italy since Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Earlier in the month, Zelenskyy met with the leaders of the Nordic nations in Finland. He also visited the Netherlands, where he, among other things, delivered a speech at the World Forum.
In Italy, he is to meet separately with President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before heading to the Vatican. He is also expected to be the guest of a popular Italian television talk show before heading to Germany.
Germany’s Defence Ministry said the country is preparing a new weapons package for Ukraine worth 2.7 billion euros ($2.9bn), reportedly Berlin’s largest since Russia invaded last year.
Kyiv said the massive new weapons package was another sign that Russia would lose its war against Ukraine. “States declare large defence aid packages for Ukraine,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy.
The aid indicated Russia was “bound to lose and sit on the bench of historical shame”, he said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he discussed the next weapons supplies with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I paid close attention to the importance of providing Ukraine with F-16s and steps necessary to begin training of Ukrainian pilots.”
Zelenskyy to meet the pope
The meeting with the pope is expected to be the most significant part of Zelenskyy’s time in Italy. He previously met the pontiff at the Vatican in 2020, and the two have had several phone conversations since the war began.
At the start of the war, the pope tried to take a balanced approach in hopes of being a mediator but later began forcefully condemning Russia’s actions, comparing them with some of the worst crimes against Ukraine during the Soviet era.
Francis met this week with Russia’s outgoing ambassador to the Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, and the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported the Vatican may have given the envoy a letter for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Francis has often repeated calls for peace and has frequently expressed a wish to act as a broker between Kyiv and Moscow. His offer has so far failed to produce any breakthrough.
Zelenskyy and his team have been promoting Kyiv’s 10-point peace plan and urging world leaders to hold a Global Peace Summit based on the proposals.
It calls for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the cessation of hostilities. Zelenskyy has repeatedly said the plan is not open to negotiations.