Russia has denied that Ukrainian forces have made a breakthrough in the bloody battle for the city of Bakhmut while the United Kingdom has become the first country to supply Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles.
Ukraine has for months requested long-range missiles from its Western allies but has only received shorter-range weapons as supporters feared more advanced weapons would be used to strike targets inside Russian territory and further escalate the conflict.
UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday that Storm Shadow cruise missiles – which have a range of more than 250km (150 miles) compared with the US-provided HIMARS range of some 80km (50 miles) – will be sent to Ukraine.
“We will simply not stand by as Russia kills civilians,” Wallace told members of parliament when announcing that Storm Shadow missiles are being provided to Kyiv.
Wallace said the cruise missiles are being sent for use within Ukrainian territory, implying he had received assurances from Kyiv that they will not be used to hit targets inside Russia.
The Kremlin previously said that the UK’s provision of such missiles would require ”an adequate response from our military”.
Russia’s Defence Ministry on Thursday was forced to deny reports that Ukrainian troops had made advances in the months-long fight for Bakhmut.
“The individual declarations on Telegram about a ‘breakthrough’ on several points on the front line do not correspond to reality,” the ministry said in a statement.
Pro-Moscow military bloggers have suggested that Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has quietly started while the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said this week that Russian troops had withdrawn from some areas of Bakhmut and that Ukrainian forces had advanced north and south of the city in what he also said was the start of the offensive.
In a video released on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday, Prigozhin said Russian troops were fleeing positions in Bakhmut because of the “stupidity” of their commanders.
“Today, everything is being done so that the front line crumbles,” he said
Russia’s Defence Ministry said in the statement that Moscow’s forces had repulsed several Ukrainian attacks in the course of the day, adding that the ongoing battle occurred near Malynivka in the eastern Donetsk region and involved both air power and artillery. Russian forces were “continuing to liberate the western parts” of Bakhmut city, it added.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said the reactions of Prigozhin and Russia’s Defence Ministry to Ukraine’s movements in Bakhmut “reflect increased panic in the Russian information space” about the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive.
NEW: Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localized counterattacks near #Bakhmut, prompting responses from #Wagner Group financier Yevgeny #Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) May 12, 2023
“The deployment of low-quality Russian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut suggests that the Russian MoD [Ministry of Defence] has largely abandoned the aim of encircling a significant number of Ukrainian forces there,” the think tank said.
‘Mentally we’re ready’ – Zelenskyy
Amid speculation that Ukraine’s counteroffensive may have already started, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was reported as saying that Ukraine needed more time before beginning the operation against Russia.
“Mentally we’re ready…” Zelenskyy told the BBC. “In terms of equipment, not everything has arrived yet,” he said.
“With [what we have] we can go forward and be successful. But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable. So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time,” he was quoted as saying on Thursday.
Patrick Bury, a senior lecturer in security at the University of Bath in the UK, said he was not surprised by Zelenskyy’s comments.
“If you are Zelenskyy, you are doing everything you can to make sure you get everything you need” before launching the offensive, he said.
“On the other hand, I would not be surprised at all if it started in the next couple of weeks, depending on the mud. … As of last week it was still one of the wettest springs they’ve had over there in years … It’s just not favourable,” Bury said.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandr Musiyenko said Kyiv’s allies needed to understand that a counteroffensive “may not result in the complete eviction of Russian troops and the definitive defeat of Russia in all occupied areas”.
“We have to be ready for the war to continue into next year – or it could end this year,” Musiyenko told Ukrainian NV Radio.
“It all depends on how the battles develop. We can’t guarantee how the counteroffensive will develop.”