Kyiv’s troops advance around Bakhmut after Wagner chief dismissed ‘absurd’ Russian claims about huge Ukrainian losses and Western officials cast doubts over Putin’s defences as counter-offensive begins

  • Ukrainian forces have advanced on the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut
  • Western advisers warn Russia’s defensive line may be ‘more fragile than thought’

Ukrainian forces have advanced on Bakhmut, Kyiv’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said, describing the embattled city as the ‘epicentre of hostilities’.

Maliar said Kyiv’s troops had ‘some success’ on the battlefield surrounding Bakhmut and said they are ‘advancing on a wide front’, but she dismissed suggestions of a major operation.

‘The main focus now is on the Bakhmut sector,’ said Maliar. ‘This has resulted in certain successes, including advances. We have taken control of certain heights.’

And an enigmatic Volodymyr Zelensky last night praised his troops for the advances near Bakhmut, saying ‘the enemy knows that Ukraine will win’. 

News of the Ukrainian advances came after the head of the feared paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, slammed claims by the Russian defence ministry it had killed 1,500 of Kyiv’s soldiers in two days as ‘absurd science fiction’. 

Prigozhin, whose mercenary troops have spent months fighting in Bakhmut on behalf of the Kremlin, poured scorn on his country’s establishment after it claimed to have thwarted a second major offensive in Donetsk.

It comes as fighting continues to rage in the eastern provinces of the war-torn country, with Kyiv’s long-awaited ‘all or nothing’ counter-offensive believed to be getting underway.

Ukrainian soldiers ride an APC on the frontline near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Monday

Ukrainian soldiers fire at the Russian air target on the frontline near Bakhmut on Monday

News of the Ukrainian advances came after the head of the feared paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured), slammed claims by the Russian defence ministry it had killed 1,500 of Kyiv’s soldiers in two days as ‘absurd science fiction’

Ukrainian forces have advanced in Novodonetske by up to five or six kilometres, local reports suggest, as officials claim ‘fierce battles are going on’ for control of the settlement. 

Maliar said that ‘despite stiff resistance and the enemy’s attempts to hold the their positions, our military units advanced in several directions during the fighting’.

READ MORE: ‘Catastrophe’ fears as major dam is blown up near Kherson: Ukraine blames Russia as explosion causes massive breach, sparking floods and putting nuclear power plant at risk

She said in the villages of Orikhovo-Vasulivka and Paraskoviivka, Ukrainian troops gained from 200 to 1,600 metres, while in Ivanivske and Klishchiivka they advanced between 100 and 700 metres. The four villages are located within several kilometres of Bakhmut. 

Western sources have claimed that despite having to face hundreds of miles of entrenched Russian troops, the defences manned by Vladimir Putin’s troops could be ‘more fragile than thought’.

Away from the front lines, Russia launched a new wave of overnight air strikes on Kyiv and Ukraine said its air defence systems downed more than 20 cruise missiles on their approach to the city.

‘All were shot down, there were no hits,’ Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said on the Telegram messaging app.

Residents said they heard several blasts that sounded like air defence systems while the city was under air raid alerts for more than four hours, starting soon after midnight on Tuesday.

Falling debris hit road surfaces and damaged power lines to the trolley system in Kyiv’s Desnianskyi district, the military said. The district, on the left bank of the Dnipro River is Kyiv’s most populous.

According to preliminary information, there were no casualties, the officials said.

Meanwhile, early on Monday, the Russian defence ministry claimed to have repelled a major offensive in South Donetsk, and made a similar claim once again on Monday night as it alleged to have thwarted a second attack.

It claimed to have killed 1,500 troops and destroyed among other military equipment, eight main battle Leopard tanks supplied to Ukraine by its Western allies and 109 armoured vehicles.

An explosion of a missile is seen in the city during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday 

Smoke rises in the sky over the city after a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv on Tuesday

An explosion of a missile is seen in the city during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday

‘Having suffered heavy losses the day before, the Kiev regime reorganized the remnants of the 23rd and 31st mechanized brigades into separate consolidated units, which continued offensive operations,’ the ministry said on Telegram.

‘A complex fire defeat was inflicted by army forces, assault and operational-tactical aviation, missile forces and artillery, as well as heavy flamethrower systems.’

But this was quickly, and very publicly, doubted by Prigozhin, who has repeatedly lambasted senior officials in the Kremlin, Russian Army and Vladimir Putin himself for perceived missteps in the war effort.

Ukraine to confront Russia at top UN court over backing of pro-Moscow rebels

Ukraine will go head-to-head with Russia at the UN’s top court on Tuesday to accuse its bitter foe of backing pro-Moscow rebels for years before last year’s full-scale invasion.

Kyiv and Moscow will give their arguments to judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, in a case that was originally started by Ukraine back in 2017.

Ukraine has since filed a separate case related to Russia’s February 2022 invasion, accusing Moscow of planning genocide. The ICJ in that case ordered Russia to suspend the invasion.

Lawyers for Ukraine will speak on Tuesday from 10am local time (0800 GMT), while Russia’s will address the court on Thursday, the ICJ said in a statement. Ukraine will then reply on June 12 and Russia on June 14.

The ICJ was created after World War II to deal with disputes between UN member states. Its decisions are binding although it has no means to enforce them.

Ukraine alleges that Russia breached UN conventions on financing terrorism and on racial discrimination, and is seeking damages for attacks by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

About 13,000 people died in the eight years of violence before the 2022 invasion.

Ukraine says Russia funnelled arms and cash to fighters behind a separatist insurgency that broke out after the pro-Russian government in Kyiv was toppled by pro-EU protests in early 2014.

Russia has denied all links to the rebels. Since the invasion, it now holds much of the territory where the violence took place and where the separatists were in charge.

The dead in eastern Ukraine include 298 people killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down with a Russian-made BUK missile over rebel territory in July 2014.

A Dutch court ruled last year that Moscow had directly controlled the rebels, as it sentenced two Russians and a Ukrainian separatist to life sentences in absentia over MH17.

International investigators said separately in February this year that there were ‘strong indications’ that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved the supply of the missile that downed the plane.

ICJ judges ruled that the case could go ahead in 2019, after dismissing Russia’s attempts to have it thrown out.

Russia faces a series of legal actions in The Hague over the conflict in Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent war crimes tribunal which like the ICJ is also based in the Dutch city, issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March.

Putin is accused by the ICC of the war crime of unlawfully deporting children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

In remarks published on the Telegram channel of his press service, the 61-year-old said to kill that many Ukrainian troops would require daily gains of 150km (93 miles).

‘I therefore believe that this is simply wild and absurd science fiction,’ said Prigozhin.

Totting up the figures provided by the ministry would imply ‘we have already destroyed the entire planet five times over,’ he added sarcastically.

Ukrainian officials have made no mention of any broad, significant new campaign, although in his nightly address on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was enigmatic, hailing ‘the news we have been waiting for’ and forward moves in Bakhmut in Donetsk.

He said: ‘I am grateful to each of our soldiers, to all our defenders, men and women, who have given us today the news have been waiting for. Well done, soldiers in the Bakhmut sector!

‘We see how hysterically Russia reacts to any step we take there, all positions we take. The enemy knows that Ukraine will win.’ 

He did not provide further detail. The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said earlier that his forces continued ‘moving forward’ near Bakhmut. Russian fighters and officials said the situation there was ‘very difficult’ for Moscow.

Russia claimed late last month to have captured Bakhmut following what had become the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, but Ukraine has insisted its forces retained a small foothold and denied that Moscow was in full control of the city.

Zelenskiy said Russia was reacting ‘hysterically’ to any action undertaken by Ukrainian forces and singled out two units who ‘skillfully, decisively and effectively defend our positions, destroy the occupiers and, most importantly, move forward’.

The frontline assault comes after weeks of intensive behind-the-scenes preparations, including vital training by UK troops, and some 16 months after Putin’s illegal invasion.

American and European military officials advising Kyiv have claimed that Kremlin defensive lines may be fragile, an insider told The Economist yesterday.

Semyon Pegov, a prominent Kremlin-affiliated ‘milblogger’, confirmed that Ukraine had ‘some success’ in an attack in Novoselivka-Ugledar and claimed updates from the Russian-controlled region were ‘more and more alarming every hour’.

Pegov, commonly known under his alias Wargonzo, said the war is ‘heating up’ and that Monday’s attack was ‘much more serious than yesterday’.

Ukrainian forces punched through Russian defensive lines in southeast Ukraine for a second day as fighting raged at several flashpoints along the 600-mile frontline.

Ukrainian soldiers were seen scrambling out of trenches Monday as attacks were carried out in Novodarovka, Rivnopol and Velyka Novosilka.

Kyiv said their forces were indeed increasing offensive operations and making gains, as Russian officials said that Moscow’s forces have foiled at least one assault.

But Ukrainian officials have suggested some of the Russian announcements were misinformation as speculation grows about a widely anticipated counteroffensive after more than 15 months of war.

Ed Arnold, of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said: ‘We are seeing a lot more Ukrainian military activity and reconnaissance on a larger scale. They need to understand the disposition of Russian forces and to unmask the Russian guns, which have a range of 12-18 miles and have been placed with overlapping arcs to cover as much of the frontline as possible.

‘Storm Shadows could be used for high value targets, such as ammunition stores for these Russian guns,’ Mr Arnold said

Details of the crucial advance remained shrouded in secrecy. A news blackout, imposed by Ukraine and supported by its allies such as the UK, meant details were scarce.

Reports of the counter-offensive came from Russian military bloggers and the head of the Wagner paramilitary group. 

Russia’s defences could be ‘more fragile than thought’, western officials have warned amid growing signs that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has begun. Pictured: View of a military vehicle as Ukrainian forces destroy Russian positions in direction of Bakhmut yesterday

Ukrainian soldiers smile as they ride in a pickup van on the frontline near Bakhmut, the site of fierce battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region on Monday

A view shows a crater left by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in central Kharkiv, Ukraine, in the early hours of Tuesday morning

Smoke rises after shelling, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the Ukraine-Russia border in the town of Vovchansk, in the Kharkiv region Monday

Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russia-backed administration of Ukraine’s partly occupied Zaporizhzhia province, said fighting resumed on its border with the eastern Donetsk province yesterday after Russian defences beat back a Ukrainian advance the previous day.

‘The enemy threw an even bigger force into the attack than yesterday (Sunday),’ and the new attempt to break through the front line was ‘more large-scale and organised,’ Rogov said, adding: ‘A battle is underway.’

Rogov interpreted the Ukrainian military movements as part of an effort to reach the Sea of Azov coast and sever the land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. 

Analysts have long viewed that strategy as likely because it would cut the Russian forces in two and severely strain supplies to Crimea, which has served as a key Russian military hub in the war that started February 24, 2022.

Rogov’s comments came after Moscow also said that its forces thwarted large Ukrainian attacks in Donetsk province, near its border with the Zaporizhzhia province.

Servicemen of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade run through the clouds of smoke during the 30th Chestnut Run are pictured in Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine on May 28

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023

The chief of the Wagner mercenary group has lambasted Russia’s military leaders after Ukrainian armed forces managed to retake settlements on the outskirts of Bakhmut. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin said it was a ‘disgrace’ that Kyiv’s troops were able to push back Russian lines and seize Berkhivka, a town in the northern suburbs of the embattled city.

READ MORE HERE: Russia claims to have thwarted ‘major’ attack in Donetsk

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk

Prigozhin’s Wagner group just last month managed to wrest Bakhmut out of Ukrainian hands after months of brutal fighting reminiscent of World War I trench warfare, with tens of thousands killed on both sides.

The mercenary figurehead hit out at Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief Valery Gerasimov, taunting them and urging them to go to the frontlines and see the failures for themselves as the armed factions spiral towards civil war. 

‘Now part of the settlement of [Berkhivka] has already been lost, the troops are slowly falling back. What a disgrace! 

‘Shoigu, Gerasimov, I urge you to come to the front, raise your pistols at your men to make them go forward. Come on, you can! 

‘And if you can’t, then you will die as heroes.’ 

Prigozhin’s latest tirade comes as his mercenaries captured a lieutenant colonel from Vladimir Putin’s regular forces in the latest example of bitter infighting in Russian ranks. 

The captured colonel was seen hanging his head in a humiliating video posted by the Wagner group in which he confessed his ‘guilt’ and admitted to being drunk on duty after allegedly shooting at a Wagner vehicle.

This follows claims by the mercenaries that the regular Russian army targeted their ranks with mines, as a clip showed their sappers clearing the explosive devices from a road.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched several verbal tirades at Putin’s military leaders. He has accused them of ordering their troops to retreat from their positions and leaving Wagner fighters unprotected on the frontlines 

Wagner private army mercenaries film themselves de-mining a road which they claim was mined by regular Russian troops as the mercenaries made their way back from the front

An aerial view shows destructions in the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on May 21, 2023

Wagner mercenaries have been fighting for Putin in Ukraine and are credited with seizing the embattled city of Bakhmut from Ukrainian armed forces after months of bloody warfare.

But their success has seemingly angered regular Russian army commanders.

READ MORE: Military expert JUSTIN BRONK explains importance of Zelensky’s counter-offensive

Wagner chief Prigozhin has launched several verbal tirades at Putin’s military leaders. He has accused them of ordering their troops to retreat from their positions and leaving Wagner fighters unprotected on the frontlines.

The captured soldier identified himself as Roman Venevitin, commander of Russia’s 72nd Brigade.

Venevitin, who appeared to have a broken or wounded nose, confessed that he ‘opened fire on a Wagner PMC [private military company] vehicle while intoxicated from alcohol’.

He did so due to ‘personal animosity’, he claimed. 

The shooting damaged a Ural supply truck but did not wound any Wagner soldiers, according to the private army.

Venevitin also confessed to leading a group of ten to 12 Russian army soldiers who ‘disarmed’ a Wagner rapid response group.

‘Does personal animosity have any place at all in war?’ an angry Wagner commander asked Venevitin.

‘No,’ the captured colonel replied sheepishly.

Wagner has a reputation for battering its own ‘traitors’ to death with a sledgehammer – but there is no suggestion the Russian colonel will face the same treatment.

A summary execution of a high-ranking Russian commander by Wagner forces would cause unprecedented chaos in Moscow’s ranks. 

Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) speaks with servicemen during the withdrawal of his forces from Bakhmut and the handover to regular Russian forces

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut on May 28

American and European military officials advising Kyiv have claimed that Kremlin defensive lines may be fragile, sources allege. Pictured: Servicemen of the assault brigade ‘Spartan’ of National Guard of Ukraine, take part in military exercises in Kharkiv region on Thursday

The Wagner group is fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Vladimir Putin, but the relationship between them and Putin’s regular troops is one of mutual hatred

The capture of Venevitin came hours after Wagner mercenaries were forced to clear a road of mines which they claim had been laid by the regular army corps.

READ MORE HERE: One Russian was killed for every 48cm of land captured by Vladimir Putin’s forces in the siege of Bakhmut 


Prigozhin said hundreds of mines had been laid by the regular army to snare Wagner forces when they pulled out of Bakhmut after securing a rare victory for Putin in the war.

‘We discovered about a dozen places where various explosive devices were placed, ranging from hundreds of anti-tank mines to tons of [charges] from Zmey Gorynych self-propelled missiles,’ Prigozhin said.

‘Those who planted these charges were representatives of the ministry of defence… These [explosive] charges did not need to be stacked in order to hold back the enemy since it is in the rear area.

‘It can be assumed that they wanted to meet the advancing units of the Wagner PMC [Private Military Company] with these charges, even though we do not walk in columns.’

It highlights the rift inside the Kremlin forces fighting Ukraine, and some analysts see civil war as a possibility in Russia if Putin loses the war.

Despite huge losses, and a ban on recruiting prisoners from Russia’s penal colonies, Prigozhin is still thought to have up to 60,000 men at his disposal.

Wagner is one of several private armies in Russia. Chechen warlord leader Ramzan Kadyrov controls a heavily armed group of his own, and Russian energy giant Gazprom has set up its own private military company. 

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