The founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group last night challenged Volodymyr Zelensky to a dogfight for control of Bakhmut, as Ukraine braced for a renewed Russian offensive.
Yevgeny Prigozhin threw down the gauntlet to the Ukrainian leader in a bizarre video from the cockpit of an SU-24 fighter-bomber, claiming he had just flown a night sortie over the town in the eastern Donbas region.
“Volodymyr Oleksandrovych [Zelensky], we have landed. We have bombed Bakhmut,” he said. “I will fly a MiG-29. If you so desire, let’s meet in the skies. If you win, you take Artemivsk [Bakhmut’s Soviet-era name]. If not, we advance till [the river] Dnipro.”
The battle of Bakhmut is fast approaching a tipping point, with Russia throwing fresh waves of troops into the assault on the Donetsk city. With the Russian efforts appearing to be focused on Bakhmut, Kyiv has warned it is preparing for a large-scale offensive by Moscow in a bid to regain the initiative.
In recent months, Mr Prigozhin has sought to promote his image publicly as part of a rumoured attempt to replace Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister.
Despite his boast, Moscow has been unable to fully capture Bakhmut, with Ukrainian forces still repelling multiple attacks on smaller settlements surrounding the town.
Mercenaries from Mr Prigozhin’s Wagner Group have spearheaded a brutal eight-month-long effort to capture Bakhmut, a town with little military significance.
But in recent weeks, regular, well-trained Russian troops have been brought in to lead what could be the final charge for the city, a blow to Mr Prigozhin’s standing with the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s general staff yesterday said that “there is a complete lack of coordination and interaction” between the Russian military and Mr Prigozhin’s mercenaries.
“There are already many reports that the occupiers want to do something symbolic in February,” the Ukrainian president said late on Sunday, hinting at a Russian offensive in time for the first anniversary of the invasion.
An unnamed adviser to the Ukrainian military told the Financial Times that Kyiv had “very solid intelligence of intent” by Russia to launch the attack within 10 days.
Yesterday, Major General Vadym Skibitskyi, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said: “We have determined that Russian troops may attack in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and possibly in Zaporizhzhia.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine sowed confusion yesterday about whether its defence minister would be replaced, creating doubts about the leadership of its war effort just as it braces for an expected Russian offensive.
The questions over Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov were the first public sign of serious disarray in Ukraine’s wartime leadership.
A day after announcing that Mr Reznikov would be sidelined, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to row back, saying no changes would be made this week.
David Arakhamia, chief of the parliamentary bloc of Mr Zelensky’s party, had said the 37-year-old head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would replace Mr Reznikov, who would become minister of strategic industries.
But Mr Zelensky remained silent, while Mr Reznikov said on Sunday he’d heard nothing.
The confusion caps a two-week crackdown on alleged official wrongdoing, Ukraine’s biggest political and administrative shake-up since Russia invaded a year ago.
Central and regional officials were fired or quit, security forces raided a billionaire’s home and investigations were launched into suspected fraud at the main oil company and refinery. The Defence Ministry was accused of overpaying for food, although Mr Reznikov was not personally accused
Mr Zelensky said he needs to show that Kyiv can be a safe steward of billions of dollars of western aid. But the moves may risk destabilising a political class that had stood together against Russia’s invasion.
Telegraph Media Group Limited