By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) -Russia’s Wagner private army started handing over its positions in Bakhmut to regular Russian troops on Thursday, five days after declaring full control of the devastated eastern Ukrainian city following the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut opens the way to advances in the eastern industrial region known as the Donbas. Kyiv says the battle drew Russian forces into the city, inflicting high casualties and weakening Moscow’s defensive line elsewhere.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prighozin, who has repeatedly accused Russia’s regular military of abandoning ground captured earlier by his men, said Wagner would be ready to return to the city if needed.
“From today at five in the morning, May 25 until June 1, most of the (Wagner) units will rebase to camps in the rear,” Prighozin said in a video, wearing battle gear and standing beside a war-damaged residential block. He says 20,000 of his fighters died taking Bakhmut.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in a message on the Telegram app that Wagner had handed over positions on the city’s outskirts but “inside the city itself Wagner fighters remain”.
The replacement of Wagner’s forces with regular soldiers could provide a tempting target for Ukraine, after its advances on some higher ground around the city over the past week.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said the number of Russian attacks in the area had fallen in the last three days, and that there had been two military engagements in the last 24 hours, though shelling continued.
In a prisoner swap with Russia, Ukraine received 106 soldiers who had been captured in Bakhmut. Russia confirmed the swap, saying Wagner took part in the exchange, but did not say how many Russians were released.
“We can definitely note a reduction in attacks and possibly this is linked to their regrouping. It is clear that we have inflicted heavy losses and they need this (to regroup),” he said.
Maliar said Russia was also reinforcing its positions on the flanks of Bakhmut and shelling Ukrainian forces to try to stop the Ukrainian advances. Ukraine says it retains a small foothold within the city.
Ukraine is planning a major counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion, using modern weapons supplied by Western allies and troops freshly trained across Europe. It has not said when the offensive will start or what areas it will seek to retake.
The United States plans to announce up to $300 million worth of military aid for Ukraine comprised mainly of ammunition, two official sources said. The package was expected to contain more Guided Multiple Launch Rockets (GMLRS) for HIMARS launchers, and ammunition.
The U.S. has pledged more than $35 billion worth of security assistance to Ukraine since the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion.
It also sanctioned a senior Wagner group official on Thursday who the Treasury Department accused of trying to bring weapons for the fight in Ukraine through Mali.
Russia has built sprawling fortifications in its neighbour’s east and south in readiness for the counteroffensive. Military analysts said small Ukrainian offensives may be aimed at spreading Russia’s forces thinly, creating gaps elsewhere that can be exploited.
Ukraine’s National Guard said in a statement that its forces identified two Russian Su-25 aircraft and opened fire on them with a portable anti-aircraft unit on Thursday. One of the aircraft was destroyed and the pilot seen ejecting into a Russian-occupied area.
The second aircraft was damaged and made an emergency landing. Black smoke was seen rising from a landing site near the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said it scrambled fighter jets to escort two U.S. strategic bomber planes away from the Russian border as they flew over the Baltic Sea. The U.S. aircraft did not cross the border and the fighter jets returned to their home airfield, it added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the United States and its allies are fighting an expanding proxy war.
The United States and its allies say they want Ukraine to defeat Russian forces on the battlefield but deny Putin’s claims that they want to destroy Russia, which they accuse of an unprovoked, imperial land grab in Ukraine.
Russia moved ahead on Thursday with a plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, signing a deal with its ally about the storage of the warheads at a special facility that should be finished in just over a month’s time.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller repeated Washington’s warning that use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in the conflict would be met with “severe consequences,” without specifying those consequences.
“It’s the latest example of irresponsible behaviour that we have seen from Russia,” Miller said.
“I will just add we have seen no reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture or any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” Miller said.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Grant McCool)
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