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Ukraine updates: Wagner to leave Bakhmut by June 1

Published May 22, 2023last updated May 22, 2023

The head of Russia's private army says his fighters will transfer control of Bakhmut to the Russian army by June 1. But Kyiv says Russia has "not occupied" Bakhmut. DW has the latest.

Wagner group found Yevgeny Prigozhin standing next to his fighters in Bakhmut, Ukraine on May 20, 2023
Ukraine says Russian troops have destroyed Bakhmut but denies that is has lost control of the cityImage: Concord/Handout/REUTERS

The founder of Wagner, Russia's private military group, Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that his forces will leave Bakhmut by the beginning of next month.

Wagner, working alongside Russian forces, claimed on Saturday to have taken the eastern Ukrainian city, which Kyiv has denied.

Prigozhin said in an audio message posted to Telegram that the handover would happen between May 25 and June 1.

He added that his mercenary fighters had set up "defense lines" on the western outskirts of Bakhmut before a planned transfer of control to the Russian army.  

Wagner fighters have spearheaded Russia's storming of Bakhmut over the past eight months and Prigozhin's influence has risen hugely during Moscow's Ukraine offensive. 

However, he has launched a stinging criticism of Russian defense chiefs over the large-scale Russian losses in Ukraine, accusing them of incompetence.

The White House has estimated that Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties in the fight for Bakhmut alone, including the deaths of more than 20,000 soldiers.

Ukraine is estimated to have suffered some 20,000 casualties.

Here are some of the other developments concerning Russia's war in Ukraine on Monday, May 22:

Ukraine Ambassador to US thinking long-term

The Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States has welcomed pledges of F-16 fighter jets to her country while also emphasizing the long-term "goal" which is "to liberate all Ukraine."

Speaking after delivering a commencement address at Boston College, Oksana Markarova said the delivery of the jets is critical to the security of the Ukraine.

And taking of the future she said: "I wouldn't label it. Whether it's going to be one offensive or several. Whether it's going to be just the hard, daily work on every front line or we will see some big results in any of them, it doesn't really matter. What matters is the goal is to liberate all Ukraine."

Kuleba arrives in Morocco

Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has arrived in Morocco as part of his second tour of the African continent.

"First-ever bilateral visit to Morocco at the start of my second Africa tour," Kuleba tweeted. "FM Nasser Bourita and I focused on the Peace Formula, new economic opportunities, trade and visa liberalization. We have always welcomed Moroccan students and hope to welcome more of them in the future."

Earlier on Monday, Kuleba spoke with EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels via video link to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Belgorod governor says 'sabotage' group crossed into Russia

The governor of Russia's Belgorod region claimed that "a sabotage and reconnaissance group of the Ukrainian armed forces" had crossed into Russia to carry out an attack on Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been informed of the incident, the Kremlin said.

However, Ukrainian officials denied any responsibility for the attack and blamed it on anti-Kremlin guerrilla groups.

A Twitter account purportedly belonging to one such group, the Freedom of Russia Legion, said it had "completely liberated" the border town of Kozinka and was moving on to other towns in the region.

Russia: F-16s to Kyiv would raise NATO question

The transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv would raise the question of NATO's involvement in the conflict, Russia's ambassador to the United States said in comments published early Monday.

"There is no infrastructure for the operation of the F-16 in Ukraine and the needed number of pilots and maintenance personnel is not there either," Anatoly Antonov said in a statement posted.

"What will happen if the American fighters take off from NATO airfields, controlled by foreign 'volunteers'?"

The remarks come after US President Joe Biden on Friday endorsed a plan for training programs for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets. 

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assured Biden that the jet would not be used to go into Russia's territory.

Meanwhile, Antonov also said that any Ukrainian strike on Crimea would be considered a strike on Russia.

"It is important that the United States be fully aware of the Russian response," he added.

Bakhmut 'not occupied' by Russia: Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Bakhmut is "not occupied" by Moscow, even as the chief of Russia's Wagner mercenary group claimed that his fighters had seized control of the eastern salt-mining town "to the last centimeter."

"Bakhmut is not occupied by Russia today," Zelenskyy said on Sunday at a press conference on the sidelines of the G7 summit in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

"I cannot share with you the tactical views of our military. The most difficult thing would be if there was some tactical mistake in Bakhmut and our people were surrounded."

Ukraine's military said that it was holding on to a small part of the city, which has been the site of the bloodiest fighting during Russia's war in Ukraine.

"We continue to advance on the flanks in the suburbs of Bakhmut," Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine's ground forces, said.

Zelenskyy likens Bakhmut's ruins to Hiroshima after WWII

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likened the ruins of Bakhmut to the destruction of Hiroshima in World War II as he took part in the G7 summit in the Japanese city on Sunday.

"I'll tell you openly: Photographs of ruined Hiroshima absolutely remind me of Bakhmut and other similar settlements. Nothing left alive, all the buildings ruined," Zelenskyy said while talking to the media.

Following the comments, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova derided the Ukrainian president's comparison, saying the US bombed Hiroshima and is now providing military support to Ukraine.

"Nice one," Zakharova said on Telegram. "Since both were carried out by the White House."

Brazil's Lula 'upset' at not meeting Zelenskyy

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Monday that he was "upset" he and Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not meet at the G7 summit, adding that the meeting fell through because his Ukrainian counterpart was late.

"I wasn't disappointed. I was upset, because I'd like to meet him and discuss the matter," Lula told reporters at a press conference before heading home from Japan.

But "Zelenskyy is a grown-up. He knows what he's doing," Lula said.

He added that he did not see a point in meeting Zelenskyy now, saying neither he nor Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to want peace.

"For now, they're both convinced they're going to win the war," he said.

Lula is pressing for peace negotiations and has proposed Brazil as a mediator, along with other "neutral" nations, including China and Indonesia.

However, he faced criticism last month after he accused the US of "encouraging" the war.

Russia launches overnight air attack on Dnipro — governor

Russia carried out an overnight air attack on the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, officials said.

The Ukrainian army said 16 missiles and 20 attack drones had targeted its troops and the city's infrastructure.

Local governor Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram that eight people were injured and that three of them were being treated in the hospital.

"Thanks to the defense forces, we withstood the attack. Details will come in due time," Lysak said, referring to Russian forces as "terrorists."

RBC-Ukraine news agency reported that around 15 blasts were heard during more than 90 minutes of air raid alerts.

But it wasn't clear if the sounds were air defense systems destroying targets or Russian missiles or drones hitting their targets.

With a Ukrainian counteroffensive looming, Russia has resumed missile and drone strikes this month after a nearly two-month lull.

Waves of attacks now come several times a week, the most intense of the war.

Russian administration: Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cut from power grid

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was switched to standby, a Russia-installed local official in the Moscow-controlled part of the region said.

Vladimir Rogov said the plant was "completely" disconnected from the external power supply after Ukraine disconnected a power line it controls.

Ukraine's nuclear agency Energoatom accused Russia of carrying out an attack that caused the power cut.

The agency said the shelling caused the seventh instance of the plant entering "blackout mode" since Moscow's troops took control in March 2022.

Anatoliy Kurtev, Zaporizhzhia city council's secretary in Ukraine, said that work was ongoing since early Monday to restore power to the city.

On several occasions, the Zaporizhzhia power plant has been the center of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian fighters, causing concern from international nuclear experts who feared a potential accident at the facility.

Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region is one of four areas of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia last year.

mm, dvv, jsi/kb (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)