The head of Russia’s mercenary outfit Wagner said it could take months to capture the embattled Ukraine city of Bakhmut and slammed Moscow’s “monstrous bureaucracy” for slowing military gains.
Russia has been trying to encircle the battered industrial city and wrest it ahead of February 24, the first anniversary of what it terms its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“I think it’s (going to be in) March or in April,” Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said in one of several messages posted online overnight.
“To take Bakhmut you have to cut all supply routes. It’s a significant task,” he said, adding: “Progress is not going as fast as we would like”.
“Bakhmut would have been taken before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy … and the spokes that are put in the wheels daily,” he added.
Prigozhin has previously accused the Russian military of attempting to “steal” victories from Wagner, a sign of his rising clout and the potential for dangerous rifts in Moscow.
The fierce fighting for the eastern industrial city is now the longest running battle of Russia’s intervention and Moscow’s key military objective.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed the Donetsk region where Bakhmut lies last year but his forces are fighting off Ukrainian troops there.
The capture of Bakhmut would be a major win for Moscow but analysts say its capture would be mainly symbolic as the salt-mining town holds little strategic value.
Ukrainian forces are determined not to cede any ground ahead of an anticipated counter-offensive in the spring.
– Widening rift –
Prigohzin, who is close to Putin, said the speed of Russian progress in the grinding battle would depend on whether Ukraine continued to send reserves to hold the city.
His private fighting force, which has recruited prisoners from across Russia with the promise of amnesty, has claimed a lead role in recent battles in east Ukraine.
He announced last week that Wagner would no longer be tapping prisons to fill its ranks and on Thursday warned this would also impact the fighting.
“Of course, at some point the number of units will drop and as a result the number of tasks that we can perform will not be what we want,” he added.
Wagner’s claims to have captured ground without help from the regular army has spurred friction with senior military leadership.
– ‘Ready to fight’ –
Moscow is also pursuing a campaign of trying to cripple Ukraine’s energy infrastructure by firing drones and missiles.
Kyiv said Thursday it had shot down 16 missiles from the latest barrage of two dozen launched overnight from planes and ships in the Black Sea.
“Unfortunately, (the missiles hit) in the north and west of Ukraine,” presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said.
Dnipropetrovsk regional governor Sergiy Lysak posted images on social media of firefighters working among the debris of partially destroyed homes in the central province.
The strikes killed a 79-year-old woman, Lysak said.
The Russian aerial attacks have left millions in the cold and dark in winter.
With Russia still battering the energy grid — despite what analysts say is a dwindling stockpile of long-range projectiles — fears have steadily mounted of a potential new Russian attack from the north.
Russia had launched the nearly year-old offensive from its soil and Belarus, ruled by Kremlin-ally Alexander Lukashenko.
During a rare interview with international media including AFP on Thursday, Lukashenko said his country would “only” join Russia’s offensive in Ukraine if Belarus is attacked first by Kyiv.
“I’m ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus in one case only: if so much as one soldier from (Ukraine) comes to our territory with a gun to kill my people,” he said.
Separately, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrived in Kyiv Thursday to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.
“I came to say: Israel stands by Ukraine and by the Ukrainian people in their difficult time,” Cohen wrote on Twitter.
Shortly after arrival, the minister visited the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the site of an alleged massacre of Ukrainian civilians.
“We cannot remain indifferent to these difficult images and to the stories of atrocities which I heard here. Israel condemns any intentional attack on innocent people,” he wrote on Twitter.
Israel has adopted a cautious approach since Russian forces invaded Ukraine last February, seeking to maintain neutrality between the warring sides.