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Russian Mercenary Leader Threatens to Pull Forces From Bakhmut Next Week

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Washington May 5, 10:14 a.m.

The founder of the Wagner private mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in Moscow last month.Credit…Yulia Morozova/Reuters

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group threatened on Friday to pull his fighters out of Bakhmut next week over what he said was a lack of ammunition, delivering the ultimatum after releasing a scorching video in which he castigated top military leaders.

In the video posted on social media, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Wagner chief, is seen walking among rows of bodies that he claimed were Wagner fighters killed in the battle for Bakhmut, the embattled city in eastern Ukraine. He called out Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the military general staff, as responsible for their deaths.

“These are Wagner guys who died today; the blood is still fresh,” Mr. Prigozhin said, in a speech marked by frequent bleeped-out expletives. “They came here as volunteers and they die so you can get fat in your mahogany offices.”

Mr. Prigozhin has complained about ammunition shortages and threatened to pull out of the city before, but he has not previously given a date. The Wagner group has been a driving force behind Russia’s monthslong battle to take Bakhmut, which has cost thousands of lives on both sides and reduced much of the city to rubble.

His latest comments come as Ukrainian soldiers continue to defend a western pocket of Bakhmut, defying signs just weeks ago that the city was close to falling to Moscow, and as Kyiv’s forces prepare to launch a counteroffensive.

A Wagner withdrawal from Bakhmut would still leave Russia with a significant fighting force in and around the city. While Wagner fighters spearheaded the battle for Bakhmut through last fall and winter — sending waves of ex-prisoners into near-suicidal assaults against Ukrainian defenses — thousands of regular Russian forces, including paratroopers and special operations forces, have played an increasingly active role in recent months.

Mr. Prigozhin named next Wednesday, the day after Russia’s Victory Day holiday, as when his forces would likely leave Bakhmut to withdraw and “lick their wounds.” The May 9 holiday, marked by a colossal parade and a show of military might on Red Square, celebrates the Soviet Union’s vanquishing of Nazi Germany and has taken on particular resonance in Russia amid its war in Ukraine.

“I am pulling out Wagner formations from Bakhmut because without weapons they are doomed to die meaninglessly,” he said in the video, adding that they would hand off to Russian defense forces.

The Wagner chief has long criticized Russian military leadership openly, with some analysts attributing the tensions to rivalries for President Vladimir V. Putin’s favor. Mr. Prigozhin has never pointed a finger directly at Mr. Putin over Russia’s setbacks in the war.

In February, Mr. Prigozhin accused Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov of treason, claiming they were starving Wagner of ammunition. But the dispute soon quieted, with the mercenary leader saying his soldiers now had the ammunition they needed. In the closed-off world of the Russian military, there was no way to know whether Wagner got the ammunition or whether the Kremlin had told him to keep his mouth shut.

In an interview with a Russian military blogger last week, Mr. Prigozhin again claimed that his troops were low on ammunition and said that if he didn’t get it he would make a decision about “continuing to station units in Bakhmut.”

Dmitri S. Peskov, the government spokesman, said that the Kremlin had seen Mr. Prigozhin’s Friday statements, but that he would not comment on them.

Mr. Prigozhin’s latest remarks added to speculation over Russia’s weapons stockpiles as its war in Ukraine drags into its 15th month. This week, Mr. Shoigu called for swifter weapons production, the latest in a series of statements by senior officials that suggest the Russian arms industry is struggling to keep pace with the demands of the war.

But a spokesman for Ukraine’s military emphasized that Mr. Prigozhin’s comments should be treated with skepticism, saying the mercenary leader was looking to shift blame for his fighters’ inability to capture Bakhmut despite months of bitter fighting.

“He’s faking a shelling famine,” the spokesman, Serhii Cherevaty, told Ukrainian media.

The problem for Wagner was not a lack of ammunition, Mr. Cherevaty said, but a shortage of people to fight and die.

“The word ‘death’ has become a synonym for them,” he said, referring to Wagner.

Marc Santora contributed reporting.

Matt Surman and Ivan Nechepurenko

Smoke rises from the side of the Ilsky Oil Refinery manufacturing complex in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia.Credit…Krasnodar Governor Veniamin Kondratyev Telegram channel, via Associated Press

Drones hit oil depots and a refinery, sparking huge fires. Explosions derailed not one but two freight trains. For the past several days, Russian infrastructure near Ukraine’s border and in Russian-controlled Crimea has been targeted repeatedly.

Ukraine has not directly claimed responsibility for the strikes, the latest of which appeared to hit an oil refinery in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia on Friday, according to Russian state media. But the increase in the tempo of attacks could help set the stage for a counteroffensive that Ukrainian officials have said is about to begin, according to military analysts.

Though far beyond the front lines of the war, the strikes put Russia’s logistics under pressure, forcing Moscow to expend additional resources rebuilding damaged infrastructure and complicating planning for Russia’s defenses against the counteroffensive, analysts say. And they also have a psychological effect, puncturing Moscow’s aura of invincibility on territory it controls, they say.

“It’s part of the preparation of the battlefield,” said Yohann Michel, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “You’re weakening the body of the enemy in different places in order to make sure that they are not moving at the moment when you actually attack.”

Such attacks are not designed primarily to hit at the point of a future counteroffensive, he said. Ukraine’s push to retake territory, if it happens, is expected to focus on lands Russia has seized since the start of its full-scale invasion more than 14 months ago, including in the eastern Donbas region and the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

But Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in 2014, has been a key conduit for supplies and troops supporting Russia’s occupying forces in southern Ukraine, and it has been hit repeatedly in recent months. Ukraine has broadly claimed responsibility for strikes in Crimea, though it rarely gives details. But it has usually maintained ambiguity about involvement in attacks on Russian territory.

Mr. Michel said strikes on infrastructure far from the front lines aim to create bottlenecks in the military supply chain, forcing Russia to divert resources and energy to cover the gaps, which in turn exposes other areas.

The hits have multiplied in recent days. On Friday, a drone attacked the Ilsky oil refinery in Russia’s Krasnodar region for the second consecutive day, Russia’s state news agency, Tass, reported. A fire broke out but was extinguished and there were no casualties, it said.

Russian officials reported strikes on train lines in Russia’s Bryansk region on Monday and Tuesday. The region was a staging ground for the invasion in February of last year and has since been used as a launch point for drone strikes on Ukraine.

There was also a fire on Saturday in Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014. Four drones also attacked storage facilities on Thursday at one of the largest oil refineries in southern Russia’s Krasnodar Territory, according to Tass, the Russian state news agency.

A British defense intelligence report on Thursday said that the “disruption to the fuel storage and distribution network will likely force adjustments to Russia’s military refueling operations to mitigate targeting.”

In one measure of Crimea’s importance for Russian military logistics, the mayor of the occupied city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine said last month that just under one-third of the supplies that pass through the city destined for Russian forces come from Crimea.

Western allies have urged Ukraine not to use newly supplied, long-range weapons to strike inside Russia, for fear that such attacks could provoke the Kremlin into escalating its war. Analysts say that Ukraine has developed a fleet of drones that can travel hundreds of miles carrying munitions. And Russia’s air defenses are set up to protect its long border against aircraft and much larger missiles, according to Samuel Bendett, a Russia expert at CNA, a research institute in Virginia.

Mr. Bendett said that one benefit for Ukraine of staging drone strikes would be to force Russia to reveal the location of its air defense systems, making them vulnerable to future attack.

In addition, any strikes in Russia can cause “serious psychological trauma” and dent Moscow’s feeling of control over its own territory, said a Ukrainian colonel, Petro Chernyk, who was careful not to suggest that the Ukrainian military was behind the recent attacks.

“Everything that is happening on the territory of the Russian Federation in terms of the destruction of fuel and lubricant materials and any other valuable materials that ensure the war is incredibly good,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Marc Santora contributed reporting.

Ukrainian soldiers during training exercises for counteroffensive operations outside Kyiv on Wednesday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The debate among Russian pro-war activists and bloggers over an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is growing increasingly intense as the campaign looms, with some warning that the coming battles could be decisive for the outcome of the war.

Though some have argued that the counteroffensive could result in defeat for Ukrainian forces, others in the pro-war community are ringing alarm bells, worried that a catastrophe for the Russian army is likely. Those voices have predicted that Russia’s front lines could collapse and that Ukrainian forces could move as far as Russia’s border regions, which they say could lead to a deep crisis inside of Russia.

The expected counteroffensive has dominated conversations among military bloggers, a diverse group of activists, journalists and volunteers who back the war and offer a glimpse into the mood in Russia. That adds to suggestions of growing anxiety among war hawks in Russia over the capabilities of Moscow’s forces, which have suffered a series of setbacks on the battlefield since the start of the invasion last year.

In September, Kyiv’s forces swiftly penetrated Russian lines and forced Moscow’s troops to abandon their equipment in Ukraine’s northeast near Kharkiv. The monthslong battle for Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, has turned into a grinding street fight for a decimated city.

And this week, Russian media reported a high-level shake-up in the Defense Ministry, as it replaced its head of logistics after just seven months. Russia had made only marginal territorial gains since he took up the post.

“Many people see this offensive as decisive in the war,” said Dmitri Kuznets, who monitors the military bloggers for Meduza, an independent Russian website, referring to Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive. “Everyone is very emotional and people’s interpretation depends on their political views.”

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group who has been a frequent critic of the Defense Ministry, has said that the Ukrainian counteroffensive “could lead to a big tragedy for Russia” unless the military leadership in Moscow improves its command and control procedures and gives his mercenaries more ammunition. On Friday, he threatened that he would pull his forces out of Bakhmut, claiming that ammunition wasn’t reaching the front.

“We need to stop lying to each other and give a fair assessment of the enemy,” Mr. Prigozhin said last week in an interview with Semyon Pegov, a pro-Russian military blogger, who said that “everyone is worried” about the counteroffensive. “We need to stop the propaganda and get ready to strike back.”

Igor Srelkov, a former separatist commander and now a popular blogger, has also been skeptical of Russia’s ability to fend off a Ukrainian offensive.

In contrast to Mr. Prigozhin, other activists questioned whether Ukraine had enough weapons and manpower to break though heavily fortified Russian defensive lines, which have been built up since Moscow seized territory early in the war.

“Once we see it, the attacking formations will be destroyed and after that we will launch an counteroffensive,” Mikhail Luchin, a volunteer in the Russian army and a blogger, wrote at the end of April on the Telegram social messaging app.

Many pro-Russian analysts and bloggers argued that Ukrainian formations can likely penetrate some parts of the front line and push Russian forces to retreat, but that doing so would not constitute a decisive victory for Kyiv. It would be bad news for Russia, but not critical.

“I cannot know for sure, I can only guess” said Aleksandr Arutyunov, a former special forces fighter who is now a popular blogger.

Residents of Kherson during an evacuation effort in the outskirts of the city in southern Ukraine on Thursday.Credit…Carlos Barria/Reuters

A 58-hour stay-at-home order for residents of Kherson in southern Ukraine is scheduled to begin on Friday evening and run through Monday. The curfew in the regional capital is taking effect after Russian shelling earlier in the week killed at least 23 people and injured at least 46 others.

The curfew limits freedom of movement into and out of the city of Kherson. Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the Kherson regional military administration, said this week that residents should stock up on food, water and medicine.

Mr. Prokudin said the measure was needed because of unspecified threats posed by Russian forces and to facilitate the unimpeded work of Ukrainian law enforcement and military.

“During these 58 hours, it is forbidden to move and be on the streets of the city,” he said.

The curfew order was among the most sweeping Ukraine has put in place since similar edicts were issued in Kyiv at the start of the invasion last year. At the time, the Ukrainian military ordered people off the streets for days as they worked to find spies and saboteurs and beat back the Russian advance on the capital.

Kherson has come under sustained and withering Russian bombardment since the fall, when Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops out of the port city and the surrounding area west of the Dnipro River.

It was a significant victory for Ukraine, because the city had been the only regional capital Russia had managed to capture since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion in February of last year. But Russian forces decamped just across the river, and from there have relentlessly shelled civilian areas.

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A Ukrainian lawmaker held his country’s flag behind a Russian delegate at a conference in Ankara, Turkey. The secretary of the Russian delegation then snatched the flag, and a scuffle ensued.CreditCredit…Storyful

Scuffles have broken out between Russian and Ukrainian delegates to a conference in Turkey this week, according to videos and state media reports.

Two separate altercations over Ukrainian flags occurred at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday.

In one video, a woman in a blue suit is capturing herself on a cellphone camera when a Ukrainian lawmaker holds up a Ukrainian flag behind her. A second man, identified by Russia’s Tass state news agency as the secretary of the Russian delegation, then walks up and rips the flag out of the Ukrainian man’s hands.

As he walks away with the yellow and blue flag, the Ukrainian lawmaker follows him, then slaps at him and tears it out of his hands.

“What are you doing with the Ukrainian flag?” shouts the lawmaker, Oleksandr Marikovski. “This is our flag.”

Video of the tussle was posted on Mr. Marikovski’s Facebook page and also circulated widely on social media.

Russian news reports named the woman in the video as Olga Timofeeva, a member of the Russian delegation, and said she was filming a broadcast interview at the time of the incident.

Tass identified the man who grabbed the Ukrainian flag as Valery Stavitsky, the Russian delegation’s secretary, and said that he was taken to a hospital for medical attention after being attacked.

Earlier on Thursday, Tass reported, Ukrainian lawmakers tried to “disrupt” a speech by a Russian official by unfurling a Ukrainian flag. That incident also resulted in a physical altercation, according to video posted by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

A scuffle broke out between Ukrainian and Russian delegates at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (PABSEC) in Türkiye’s capital Ankara

Tensions boiled over after Ukrainians interrupted a Russian official’s speech👇 pic.twitter.com/AzZiQi2B6L

— ANADOLU AGENCY (@anadoluagency) May 4, 2023

A soldier from Ukraine’s 43rd Separate Artillery Brigade jumps down from a Panzerhaubitze, a German-made self-propelled howitzer, in a forest near the front line in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The troops of Ukraine’s 43rd Separate Artillery Brigade have just about everything they need to begin the expected spring counteroffensive. They are well rested, have plenty of ammunition and are now in possession of several advanced German-made self-propelled howitzers, which have replaced their old Soviet artillery pieces.

But for the moment, they are barely moving forward, stalled not by ferocious Russian attacks, but by an enemy no less tenacious: the viscous central Ukrainian mud.

“Until the weather improves, there will be no counteroffensive,” said a lieutenant with the brigade named Serhii. “The vehicles will get stuck and then what will we do if the shooting starts?”

Deep and black, with a consistency similar to a mixture of cookie dough and wet cement, the spring mud is one obstacle that the Ukrainian military, for all of its ingenuity, finds difficult to overcome. It jams weapons and steals the boots from soldiers’ feet. Wheels and treads spin and spin, only digging military vehicles deeper into the mire.

Serhii made the decision to pull all of the new Panzerhaubitze 2000s from the field, for fear that the 60-ton howitzers would be unable to escape should they come under fire. Last week, one had to be towed when it became stuck in the mud. Over the weekend, at the unit’s rear position in southeastern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, troops were busy scraping off a heavily caked layer of sludge from treads and armored plating.

Ukraine is under pressure to launch a counteroffensive and avoid a stalemate that could last through 2023 or longer. Failure to make some progress in the war, by recouping stolen land or inflicting serious damage on Russian forces, could harm morale and test the patience of Ukraine’s western backers.

The Zaporizhzhia region, half-occupied by Russian forces, and with vast farm fields leading down to the Azov Sea, is considered a likely area for Ukraine’s big push. But among all of the variables commanders must consider before launching the attack, the weather may be the most unpredictable.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee that Mr. Putin is hoping to buy time for Western resolve to wane.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A lack of weaponry and manpower have forced President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to temporarily scale back his ambitions in Ukraine and focus on consolidating control of the Ukrainian territory Russia currently occupies, America’s top intelligence official said Thursday.

Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee that Mr. Putin remains unlikely to offer any substantial concessions to end the war and is instead hoping to buy time for Western resolve to wane.

Mr. Putin may also show interest in any temporary cease-fire proposals and “claim at least a temporary victory based on roughly the territory he has occupied.” But, she added, it would only provide “a respite for Russian forces that they could use to try to regain strength before resuming offensive operations at some point in the future.”

Ukrainian officials have long rejected the possibility of ceding territory in return for an end to the fighting, insisting that a full withdrawal of Russian forces is the only way forward.

Ukraine is still finalizing its plans for a counteroffensive, with the support of the United States, Ms. Haines said. But no matter the outcome of that operation, Ms. Haines said Russia lacks the artillery supplies and mobilized manpower to conduct its own offensive later this year.

Instead, Ms. Haines said, the U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Mr. Putin is now focused on defending the territory his forces already control, extending the conflict and thwarting Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO.

Russia accused Ukraine of attacking the Kremlin complex in Moscow with two drones on Wednesday. Ukraine has denied any involvement in the attack.Credit…Reuters

One day after the Kremlin accused Ukraine of deploying two drones to assassinate President Vladimir V. Putin, there were still deep questions about an episode that is adding to tensions ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine vehemently denied any involvement in an attack on the Kremlin, which would be an audacious strike on the fortresslike complex in the heart of Russia’s capital. He accused Moscow of orchestrating the explosions to stir up public support ahead of “a large-scale terrorist provocation.”

Here’s what we know so far about the episode and its aftermath.

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Footage verified by The New York Times shows what appears to be a drone exploding above the Kremlin. About 15 minutes later, what appears to be a second drone explodes.CreditCredit…Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Videos verified by The New York Times showed two explosions 15 minutes apart above the Kremlin, shortly before 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The blasts appeared to be caused by drones.

One explosion caused a brief fire, although it was unclear whether the drones exploded as planned or were shot down. It was not possible to determine from where they would have been launched.

About 12 hours after the explosions, the Kremlin issued a rare statement saying that it had foiled an “attempt on the life of the president,” who was not in the Kremlin at the time. The Kremlin houses the Russian Senate and an apartment where Mr. Putin occasionally stays, among other offices.

There were no casualties or serious damage, the Kremlin said.

Both sides have blamed the other for the explosions.

In its unusually lengthy statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared on Wednesday that it reserved the right to take “retaliatory measures where and when it sees fit.” The statement did not include any evidence of Ukrainian involvement.

Ukrainian government and military intelligence officials, who typically follow a policy of deliberate ambiguity about strikes on Russian territory, have said directly that they had no role in any strike against the Kremlin. They have accused Russia of manufacturing the incident to justify increased attacks on Ukraine or to drum up public support for its war.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for Mr. Putin, claimed without evidence on Thursday that the United States bore responsibility because it “dictated” Ukrainian strikes inside Russia. John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, immediately rejected the accusation, saying of the incident: “Whatever it was, it didn’t involve us.”

Russia’s claims have left U.S. intelligence officials circling around slim facts to determine what happened and why Moscow might risk embarrassment by giving so much attention to what amounts to another security failure amid its well-publicized military struggles in Ukraine.

“We simply don’t know,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday, adding: “I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.”

A makeshift memorial on the site of an explosion in Dolyna, in eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

The incident could serve as a pretext for Mr. Putin to escalate the war somehow, possibly by striking government buildings in Kyiv or trying again to decapitate the Ukrainian government.

Kremlin officials have hinted repeatedly at the possibility of using nuclear weapons, and war hawks have pushed for another draft to increase troop numbers.

On Thursday, Ukrainian air defenses shot down a volley of Russian drones and missiles launched at Kyiv and Odesa, in the latest of a series of strikes against cities and town in recent days. In Odesa, the Ukrainian military published images suggesting that some drones had handwritten messages reading “For Moscow” and “For the Kremlin.”

Tensions are particularly high as Kyiv prepares a counteroffensive to retake territory in eastern and southern Ukraine that was seized by Russia. Ukrainian forces are readying tens of thousands of soldiers and escalating strikes on Russian targets, including in occupied Crimea. And on Tuesday, Russia will commemorate Victory Day, a major holiday marking the Soviet triumph in World War II.

Even with the brutality of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has ratcheted up violence in response to major attacks on Russian-controlled territory. Last fall after an explosion that damaged a key bridge between Russia and Crimea, Moscow initiated a campaign of airstrikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure that cut off heat and electricity to millions of Ukrainians as temperatures plummeted.