Ukraine says it has recaptured up to two kilometers around

Ukraine says it has recaptured up to two kilometers around Bakhmout

Ukraine on Friday posted gains near the devastated eastern town of Bachmout, the epicenter of fighting with Russian forces, with China announcing it is sending a special envoy to Ukraine, Russia and three European countries.

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The head of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigoyine, confirmed the Ukrainian breakthrough near Bakhmout, where his men are on the front lines, and accused the Russian regular army holding the flanks of “fleeing” their positions.

“Taking Bakhmout will do nothing for Russia because the flanks are crumbling and the front is collapsing,” Mr Prigoyine said in a video, accusing the Russian general staff of trying to “water down” the situation.

Shortly before this new fierce criticism from Wagner’s boss, the Russian Ministry of Defense had assured that the day before it had fended off 26 Ukrainian attacks on a 95-kilometer front in the Soledar sector, a town north of Bachmout. “More than 1,000 soldiers and up to 40 tanks” were involved in these attacks.

In Kiev on Friday, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar assured that “our defense forces have advanced two kilometers near Bakhmout,” adding, “We have not lost any position in Bakhmout this week.”

The Russian army on Thursday evening spoke out against Ukrainian forces denying a breach of its defenses after another senior Ukrainian official on Wednesday confirmed a withdrawal of Russian forces to certain areas near Bachmout following counterattacks by Kiev forces.

Mr. Prigoyine, but also pro-Russian military bloggers, were alarmed about the withdrawal of troops in the area.

The battle for Bakhmout (about 70,000 pre-war population), a devastated city more than 90% controlled by Russian forces, is the longest and deadliest since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.

In an interview broadcast by the BBC on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed that Kiev still needs time and weapons to launch a much-anticipated counter-offensive.

Mr. Prigoyine then accused him of “dishonesty” and claimed that the Ukrainian counter-offensive was “in full swing”.

Ukraine could eventually rely on Storm Shadow cruise missiles promised by the UK on Thursday, a move Moscow on Friday called “extremely hostile”.

“Russia reserves the right to take all necessary measures to neutralize threats that may arise from the use of cruise missiles by Ukraine,” Russian diplomacy warned.

Zelenskyi in Rome

At the diplomatic level, Mr. Zelenskyi will meet Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome on Saturday, a spokesman for the Italian presidency told AFP. A meeting between Mr Zelensky and Pope Francis is also “possible”, according to a Vatican source.

China, in turn, announced that Chinese ambassador Li Hui, special envoy for Eurasian affairs, will discuss “a political solution to the Ukraine crisis” in Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia starting Monday.

“It fully shows that China stands firmly on the side of peace,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.

Li Hui, 70 and former ambassador to Russia for ten years (2009-2019), is the most senior Chinese diplomat to visit Ukraine since the Russian invasion began.

His name was announced in late April during a phone call between Chinese and Ukrainian Presidents Xi Jinping, the first since the conflict began.

At the end of February, China published its 12-point position on the Ukraine crisis, in which it particularly urged respect for the territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine.

Grain Agreement

In addition, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulsi Akar announced that the extension of the agreement on the export of Ukrainian grain for the third time is nearing completion.

A meeting was held in Istanbul on Thursday as part of talks on extending the agreement with the participation of Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations.

In addition to the extension of the agreement, the resumption of operation of the Togliatti-Odessa pipeline for deliveries of ammonia, an essential chemical component of mineral fertilizers, demanded by Moscow, was also discussed, according to a UN press release.

Ankara was a key player in concluding the so-called Black Sea Agreement signed on July 22 by the United Nations, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.

The deal, which has helped alleviate the global food crisis caused by the war, expires on May 18.