Wagner chief says Ukrainian counter-offensive ‘inevitable’

Ukraine is preparing for an “inevitable” counter-offensive and is sending well-prepared units to the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, for many months the focal point of fighting, the head of Russia’s private Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says.

In a combative audio message posted on his Telegram channel, Mr Prigozhin renewed his criticism of Russia’s security establishment, saying there was a “betrayal” going on inside Russia, as he lambasted the defence ministry for not sending much-needed shipments of ammunition to his fighters.

“Today, well-trained enemy units are already being thrown into Bakhmut … A counteroffensive by the Ukrainians is inevitable,” Mr Prigozhin said, adding he expected the campaign to start sometime after May 2 when the weather has improved and the ground has hardened.

Mr Prigozhin, who has for months fought openly with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu over the conduct of the war, said his troops were suffering five times as many casualties due to a lack of support from Moscow.

He also questioned why Russian forces had not launched offensives against the nearby cities of Sloviansk or Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine to relieve the pressure on Bakhmut.

But he said his forces would do whatever it takes to halt any Ukrainian attempt to retake the city.

“We will advance at any cost, just to grind down the Ukrainian army and disrupt their offensive,” Mr Prigozhin said.

Russia has said capturing Bakhmut will allow it to mount further offensives in eastern Ukraine.

Despite downplaying its strategic significance for Moscow, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly refused to withdraw his forces.

The capture of the city – which Mr Prigozhin said on April 11 was more than 80 per cent controlled by his Wagner forces – would be Russia’s first major victory in the conflict since a series of major withdrawals from the north-eastern Kharkiv region and southern Kherson region last autumn.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday appealed for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, warning “there is no winner in a nuclear war”, state media said.

The phone call was a long-anticipated conversation after Beijing said it wanted to act as a peace mediator.

Mr Xi’s government would send a “special representative” to Ukraine for talks about a possible “political settlement”, a government statement reported by state TV said.

China has tried to appear neutral in the war but refused to criticise Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement before the February 2020 invasion saying their governments had a “no limits friendship”.

Mr Xi’s government released a peace proposal in February and called for a cease-fire and talks.

“Negotiation is the only viable way out,” state TV said in a report on Mr Xi’s comments to Mr Zelensky.

“There is no winner in a nuclear war,” the report said.

“All parties concerned should remain calm and restrained in dealing with the nuclear issue and truly look at the future and destiny of themselves and humanity as a whole and work together to manage the crisis.”


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