The owner of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group has warned Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu that the Ukrainian army is planning an imminent offensive aimed at cutting off his forces from the main body of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said the “large-scale attack” was planned for late March or the start of April in a letter published by his press service on Monday.
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“I ask you to take all necessary measures to prevent the Wagner private military company being cut off from the main forces of the Russian army, which will lead to negative consequences for the special military operation,” Prigozhin said, employing the term that Moscow uses for its invasion of Ukraine.
It was the first time Prigozhin published such correspondence with the defence minister, whom he has frequently criticised over the conduct of the war.
The unusual move appeared to have two possible aims: to wrongfoot Ukraine commanders and to seek to pin blame on Shoigu, not Prigozhin, if the purported Ukrainian manoeuvre proved successful.
Prigozhin said he was providing details of the Ukrainian plan and of his own proposal to counter it in an attachment to the letter, which he did not make public. He did not say how he knew of Ukraine’s intentions.
Battle for Bakhmut
He said Wagner forces currently controlled 70 percent of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which they have been trying to capture since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
In separate comments published by a regional news channel on Telegram, Prigozhin said there was a “high probability” the southern Russian city of Belgorod would be one of the targets of the coming Ukrainian offensive.
He gave no evidence to support his assertion that Ukraine might launch a full-scale attack on a Russian city.
Russia has frequently accused Ukraine of mounting isolated cross-border strikes by drones and other means. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for such incidents.
Weather conditions have made it difficult for either side to shift a front line that has remained relatively unchanged since November.
“Both sides are waiting for weather conditions to improve,” said a Ukraine commander who gave his name as Ruslan. “Any major offensives are impossible or at least very problematic. Time is on the side of those defending.”
A lieutenant in an infantry unit near Bakhmut said rain was “a major problem”.
“Our boys stay in the trenches, in the mud and they have to defend the position,” said the soldier who asked to remain unnamed. “If the weather dries up and stays that way for three or four weeks there will definitely be a large-scale attack.”
Fierce fighting continued on Tuesday in Bakhmut. However, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said there had been fewer attacks along the front line than usual over the past 24 hours.
“This could be linked to the visit to Moscow by the Chinese leader. Why? Because Putin is hardly likely to put aggression on display on the front lines, particularly as China has spoken in favour of a ceasefire and of an end to the war. So this is likely to continue throughout his two-day visit.”
Russia, which has not scored a major military victory since August, has launched a massive winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of called-up reservists and convicts recruited from jails.
“They have lost the initiative practically throughout the length of the front line,” Ukrainian military expert Oleksandr Kovalenko said on Ukrainian NV Radio.