Moscow has acknowledged that its forces had fallen back north of the battlefield city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, in a retreat that the head of Russia’s Wagner private army called a “rout”.
The setback for Russia comes after reports of Ukrainian advances around the city and suggests a coordinated push by Kyiv to encircle Russian forces in Bakhmut, which has been Moscow’s main objective for months during the war’s bloodiest fighting.
It means both sides are now reporting the biggest Ukrainian gains in six months, although Ukraine has given few details and played down suggestions a long-planned counteroffensive had officially begun.
Russian Ministry of Defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine had launched an assault north of Bakhmut with more than 1,000 troops and up to 40 tanks, a scale that if confirmed would amount to the biggest Ukrainian offensive since November.
The Russians had repelled 26 attacks but troops in one area had fallen back to regroup in more favourable positions near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut, Konashenkov said.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner forces that have led the campaign in the city, said in an audio message: “What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is called ‘a rout’ and not a regrouping”.
In a separate video message, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians had seized high ground overlooking Bakhmut and opened the main highway leading into the city from the West.
“The loss of the Berkhivka reservoir – the loss of this territory they gave up – that’s five square kilometres, just today,” Prigozhin said.
“The enemy has completely freed up the Chasiv Yar-Bakhmut road which we had blocked. The enemy is now able to use this road, and secondly, they have taken tactical high round under which Bakhmut is located,” said Prigozhin, who has repeatedly denounced Russia’s regular military over the past week for failing to supply his forces in Bakhmut.
Ukraine typically withholds comment on its operations while they are under way, and the military command has said only that its troops have pushed forward about two kilometres near Bakhmut.
‘Lines change back and forth’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he met with the top military commanders on Friday, noting that General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported his forces “stopped the enemy and even pushed him back in some directions”.
In his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, Zelenskyy praised his troops and noted the low morale of the Russian forces.
“The occupiers are already mentally prepared for defeat. They have already lost this war in their minds,” he said. “We must push them every day so that their sense of defeat turns into their retreat, their mistakes, their losses.”
In a statement on Telegram on Friday, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed that Ukrainian forces gained ground around Bakhmut, reiterating statements from military commanders earlier this week.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US has assessed that Bakhmut remained contested territory.
“Ukrainians have not given up their defence of Bakhmut and the Russians haven’t given up their attempts to take Bakhmut,” Kirby said. “Every single day, the lines change back and forth. I mean, sometimes block by block.”
In other fighting, at least two people were killed and 22 injured elsewhere in the country since Thursday, according to figures from the Ukrainian president’s office.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said a Russian attack hit Kramatorsk, where some Ukrainian military units are based, destroying a school and residential building. Russian shelling hit 11 cities and villages in the region, killing 12 civilians, he said.
Moscow has been preparing since late last year for an expected onslaught and has built lines of anti-tank fortifications along hundreds of miles of front.
It has begun evacuating civilians who have been living near the conflict zone in Ukraine’s partially occupied Zaporizhia province.
In comments published on Friday, the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet said its defences were also being tightened amid a flurry of Ukrainian drone attacks targeting its home base, the Crimean port of Sevastopol.