Ukraine signals counterattack to come ‘very soon’ as Wagner mercenaries suffer large losses

Ukraine signals counterattack to come ‘very soon’ as Wagner mercenaries suffer large losses

This has been CNBC’s live blog covering updates on the war in Ukraine. [Follow the latest updates here.]

Ukraine’s most senior ground forces commander sent a strong signal Thursday that the country’s armed forces will launch a much-anticipated counteroffensive “very soon” to take back lost territory.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi said that the Wagner Group of mercenaries fighting in Donetsk were losing manpower, equipment and “considerable strength” and that “very soon” his forces would take advantage of the “opportunity” that presented.

The comments come just as Russian forces are seen to be losing momentum in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Separately, the head of the Wagner Group of mercenary forces in Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigoin, denied a Bloomberg report suggesting that he is preparing to reduce Wagner’s involvement in the conflict after a major dispute with Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that if Europe hesitates in supporting Ukraine, “evil may have time to regroup and prepare itself for years of war.”

“It is in your power not to allow this to happen,” Zelenskyy said in a sweeping speech before members of the European Council.

The Ukrainian president also reiterated calls for more military aid from European leaders.

“The more often Ukrainian cannons hit the occupier – the less chance Russia has to implement its genocidal policy against Ukrainians and other Europeans,” Zelenskyy said.

“God forbid anyone should see it happen in his or her own country,” he added.

Zelenskyy also thanked members of the European Union that support the work of the International Criminal Court in holding Russian President Vladimir Putin to account for the ongoing war in Ukraine.

— Amanda Macias

Russia threatened to escalate attacks in Ukraine after the British government announced it would provide to Ukraine a type of munition that Moscow falsely claims has nuclear components.

The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

Such rounds were developed by the U.S. during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine now faces in its push to break through a stalemate in the east.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The rounds retain some radioactive properties, but they can’t generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon would, RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist said.

That didn’t stop the Russians from offering a full-throated warning that the rounds were opening the door to further escalation. In the past, they have suggested the war could escalate to nuclear weapons use.

Both the the British ministry and the White House dismissed the Russian accusations. But the ammunition does carry risks even if it’s not a nuclear weapon.

— Associated Press

Ukraine’s foreign debts have grown to 90% of GDP, according to new data from the National Bank of Ukraine, translated by NBC News.

Ukraine’s gross foreign debt increased by $2.3 billion in 2022 and amounted to $132 billion at the end of the year, according to the National Bank of Ukraine.

“In particular, the shortage of goods and services has significantly expanded due to a significant decrease in exports compared to imports and significant spending by Ukrainians abroad,” according to an NBC News translation.

— Amanda Macias

European Union leaders endorsed a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months to help the country counter Russia’s invasion forces.

EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast-track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc’s 27 member nations gave it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels Thursday.

“Taking into account the security and defense interests of all member states, the European Council welcomes the agreement … to deliver ground-to-ground and artillery ammunition to Ukraine and, if requested, missiles,” the meeting’s conclusions on Ukraine read.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked leaders for the initiative earlier during a video call. According to a diplomat with direct knowledge of the conversation, Zelenskyy spoke from a moving train as he visited front-line areas.

— Associated Press

Five ships carrying 153,300 metric tons of agricultural products left Ukraine’s ports of Odesa and Yuzhny-Pivdennyi.

The vessels are destined for China, Morocco, Italy and Turkey, and are carrying wheat, peas, corn and sunflower meal.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered in July among Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, eased Russia’s naval blockade and saw three key Ukrainian ports reopen. The deal was extended this month for 120 days.

So far, more than 700 ships have sailed from Ukrainian ports since the deal began.

— Amanda Macias

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said a bid by any country to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin on a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court would be “taken as a declaration of war.”

“Let us imagine. Obviously, it is a situation which is never going to happen. But nevertheless, let us imagine this situation came true – an incumbent leader of a nuclear state had arrived, for instance, in Germany, and was arrested. What is this? A declaration of war on the Russian Federation,” Medvedev said in an interview with Russian journalists, according to Reuters.

Medvedev, who is now deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, reiterated that Russia does not observe the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Last week, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes committed during his invasion of Ukraine.

The warrants are the first the ICC has issued in response to the war in Ukraine, as officials within the country and around the world ramp up probes into the horrors of Russia’s nearly 13-month assault.

— Amanda Macias

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres thanked “the European Union and its citizens for their solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees” as he met with members of the European Council.

The U.N. estimates that more than 8.1 million people have been displaced from Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor last February. Nearly 5 million people have registered for temporary or permanent status in neighboring E.U. countries.

Guterres also discussed the ramifications of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. He updated the European Council members on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the deal that restarted grain exports from Ukraine.

Guterres again called for peace in Ukraine, and stressed that the combatants should comply with the U.N. Charter and international law, according to a U.N. readout of the meeting.

— Amanda Macias

Doctors Without Borders warned that health care in war-torn areas of Ukraine is rapidly deteriorating as Russia’s war drags on with no end in sight.

The group “found that chronic diseases had gone untreated for several months while communities were occupied by Russian forces, and food shortages had prevented patients from controlling their diets, leading to problems with mobility, eyesight and muscle function and increasing their dependence on others,” it wrote in a statement.

“In several instances, villagers were not allowed to leave their streets for months at a time, even to look for essential medicines. Because of the destruction of healthcare facilities, people needing emergency care had to travel much farther than before, through dangerous terrain, putting themselves at greater risk,” added the organization, which is also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The group, which has been working in Ukraine since 1999, has so far evacuated more than 2,500 people from the country since Russia invaded last February.

“MSF urges all warring parties to uphold international humanitarian law and their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure,” the group said.

It added: “Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must never be targets. Warring parties must allow the unobstructed supply of life-saving medicines and medical supplies and provide safe and unhindered access to independent humanitarian assistance for those in need.”

— Amanda Macias

Slovakia said today that it had handed over the first installment of four MiG-29 jets it has pledged to Kyiv, but Finland declined to offer its own ageing jets.

The country’s Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď said Thursday that “Slovakia is on the right side, and with this gesture, we as a country have written ourselves in capital letters in modern world history.”

Slovakia’s donation to Ukraine comes after Poland said last week that it would also send the first installment of four MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, a bold move while Ukraine’s other Western allies have so far been reluctant to commit fighter jets.

Finland’s Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen on Thursday said he did not want to donate Hornet fighter jets to Ukraine, despite a Ukrainian request for such planes, Reuters reported.

Finland is replacing its Hornet fleet with F-35 fighters but said that, in the meantime, it needed the Hornets for years.

— Holly Ellyatt

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited the southern region of Kherson, where he toured local infrastructure and promised to “restore everything” following Russia’s invasion.

The visit, to a region where Ukraine staged a successful counteroffensive against Russian occupying forces late last year, was his second outside Kyiv this week. On Wednesday he visited troops near the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut.

“I spoke with local residents about their current issues and needs,” Zelenskyy wrote on the Telegram messaging app under footage of his visit to Kherson region.

“We will restore everything, we will rebuild everything. Just like with every city and village that suffered because of the occupiers.”

The Ukrainian counteroffensive last year pushed Russian troops out of the regional capital Kherson after months of occupation. Workers in the region are now busy restoring power and the water supply.

“We have to ensure full restoration and protection of our energy sector!” Zelenskyy wrote in a separate post showing him inspecting energy infrastructure.

“I am grateful to everyone who works for this and returns the light to our people!”

— Reuters

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow earlier this week, Ukraine was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the visit as it waited for its own rumored telephone call with the Chinese leader.

That callv slated to take place after the talks in Russia has not materialized yet, however, and on Tuesday Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy said “nothing specific [has been decided]; we don’t yet have a confirmation” that it will take place.

China has been looking to position itself as a peace broker between Russia and Ukraine for a while but analysts say it could be a lost cause, with Beijing aligned with Russia on an ideological, economic and military level.

Against the backdrop of this “pro-Moscow neutrality,” they note that Kyiv would be better off focusing on its existing Western allies, rather than trying to win over China.

Read more here: Ukraine wants to win China over as Russia’s invasion continues. Some say it shouldn’t bother trying

— Holly Ellyatt

The head of the Wagner Group of mercenary forces in Ukraine has denied a Bloomberg report suggesting that he is preparing to reduce the unit’s involvement in the conflict.

Citing people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg said Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was preparing to scale down his private army operations in Ukraine after the Russian military command cut supplies of people and ammunition to the group. The report said Prigozhin was seen shifting attention to Africa operations.

In a response posted on Prigozhin’s business’ Telegram channel, Prigozhin said: “I don’t know what Bloomberg is reporting, but apparently they know better than I do what we’re going to do next. As long as our country needs us, we are fighting on the territory of Ukraine.”

Prigozhin has been involved in a very public dispute with Russia’s Ministry of Defense for months after criticizing its military strategy in Ukraine. He has recently complained of a lack of ammunition and support for his fighters on the front line in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, suggesting he was being purposefully sabotaged by the defense ministry. It denied the accusations. Earlier in March, Prigozhin warned that the entire front line could collapse if his forces were forced to retreat from Bakhmut.

There are growing signs that Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine and around Bakhmut is losing momentum, defense analysts say. Ukraine’s most senior ground forces commander said the country will launch a much-anticipated counteroffensive “very soon” in the area around Bakhmut, the scene of bloody fighting for over seven months.

— Holly Ellyatt

Ukraine’s most senior ground forces commander said the country’s forces will launch a much-anticipated counteroffensive “very soon” just as Russian forces are seen to be losing momentum in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram Thursday that Russian forces have not given up “hope of taking Bakhmut at any cost, despite the losses in manpower and equipment,” noting that the main Russian units taking a hit were mercenaries in the Wagner Group.

“Without sparing anything, they lose considerable strength,” he said, adding that “very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk,” he said, according to comments translated by Google.

The comments come as military analysts view Russia’s offensive around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine as losing momentum after seven months of brutal, incessant fighting that has left Bakhmut largely in ruins and thousands of soldiers dead on both sides, estimates of daily fatalities suggest.

Ukraine has previously signalled that it would launch a counter-offensive in spring but has also been waiting for the arrival of more Western weaponry.

Syrskyi said soldiers on the front line in Bakhmut had demonstrated “superhuman resilience, courage and bravery” in the face of “continuous fire of the enemy’s artillery and aircraft.”

— Holly Ellyatt

Fighting in and around Bakhmut in the region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine continues to be in the spotlight, but in neighboring Luhansk, heavy fighting has been taking place since the start of March around parts of the Svatove-Kremina sector of the front line in the northern part of the region.

There, Britain’s Ministry of Defense noted that “Russia has partially regained control over the immediate approaches to Kremina town, which was under immediate Ukrainian threat earlier in the year.”

In certain areas, Russia has made gains of up to several kilometers, the ministry noted.

“Russian commanders are likely trying to expand a security zone west from the defence lines they have prepared along higher ground, and integrate the natural obstacle of the Oskil River,” the ministry noted, adding that Russian forces are hoping to recapture Kupiansk, a logistics hub.

“Operationally, Russia’s intent in the north-east likely remains defensive. Commanders probably fear this is one of the sectors where Ukraine could attempt major offensive operations,” the ministry said.

— Holly Ellyatt

A top Russian official and close ally of President Vladimir Putin claimed Thursday that the West wants to tear Russia apart, Russian news agencies reported.

Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev told Russian media Thursday that the West’s “desire is very simple – to destabilize the political situation, divide the country into several parts that would be large enough, make agreements with each of these parts, denuclearize and demilitarize all of them and then offer its [security] services,” state news agency Tass reported.

Medvedev, who has been associated with Russian nationalist rhetoric and saber-rattling during the war in Ukraine, has — like other Russian officials including President Putin — claimed that the West’s real motive in helping Ukraine is to see Russia destroyed, without presenting any evidence of this. Ukraine’s Western allies say they are helping Kyiv to defend itself from Russia’s unprovoked aggression and to restore its territorial sovereignty.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Medvedev claimed that once the West divides Russia, the separate parts would then “even have a chance to join NATO, particularly if they give away our national resources.”

“They [Western countries] don’t want to have an equal partnership with us because they don’t need it,” Medvedev said, adding that the same goes for the West’s attitude to China.

Medvedev is widely seen as a stooge for Russian President Vladimir Putin, having served as both president and prime minister in Russia in the last 20 years, swapping roles with Putin to circumvent constitutional rules banning leaders from serving more than two terms in office consecutively.

While this so-called “tandemocracy” played out, Medvedev was seen as always subordinate to Putin no matter what role he had.

— Holly Ellyatt

The “tempo” of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut “appears to be slowing,” said the Institute for the Study of War Wednesday in its latest update. Ukrainian officials have reported fewer combat clashes in the city in recent days, the think tank noted.

However, Russian forces are currently increasing the tempo of operations around Avdiivka aiming to encircle the town, the Institute added. Ukraine said earlier this week the town could soon become a “second Bakhmut,” according to Reuters.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense also noted in its update Wednesday that the Russian forces’ offensive potential in Bakhmut is decreasing.

Although the Russian assault in Bakhmut is possibly “losing the limited momentum it had obtained,” there is still a danger that the Ukrainian garrison in Bakhmut could be surrounded, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

— Audrey Wan

The White House downplayed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presentation of an award to one of the pilots involved in the downing of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea.

“I don’t know of another military in the world that would award a pilot for ramming into a drone,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

“I gotta throw the flag on this one, I don’t know why they would throw a bravery award at a pilot who was at best, an idiot,” Kirby added.

Last week, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said its two fighter aircraft did not come in contact with the U.S. drone.

— Amanda Macias

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that the federal department she oversees has imposed more than 2,500 Russia-related sanctions following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

“We have degraded the Kremlin’s ability to replace more than 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment that it has lost on the battlefield. We have also stabilized global energy markets and cut into the Kremlin’s revenues by implementing innovative caps on the price of Russian oil,” Yellen said in opening remarks before the Senate’s Financial Services and General Government subcommittee.

Yellen also referenced her visit to Kyiv in February, where she met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials.

“As part of a broad coalition, we are responsibly disbursing vital economic assistance to Ukraine,” Yellen said. She added that “in my visit to Kyiv a month ago, Ukrainian officials told me firsthand about the critical impact of our work.”

— Amanda Macias

A Utah-based drone system developed and manufactured by Fortem Technologies is helping Ukrainian forces capture drones used by Russia on the battlefield.

The counter-unmanned aerial system, dubbed Drone Hunter F700, was initially donated to Ukrainian forces at the start of the war and then made its combat debut on the battlefield in May.

In Ukraine, Drone Hunter, as its name implies, captures Russian surveillance and reconnaissance drones by shooting a net around them to either ground or tow the system away from the battlefield.

“The Ukrainians love the system because they are able to reuse some of the drones that they capture. They are actually getting additional assets out of this,” Jon Gruen, chairman and CEO at Fortem Technologies, told CNBC.

Warren Brown, Fortem Technologies vice president of marketing, echoed Gruen and said that in some cases, Ukrainian forces have been able to fingerprint the captured drones.

“If you explode the drone then you don’t have any reconnaissance of where it came and what it’s mission is,” Brown added.

Gruen explained that Fortem Technologies has developed the Drone Hunter system after receiving specific feedback from Ukrainian forces.

The counter-unmanned aerial system, which can be used completely autonomously, has recently been modified to help counter Iranian-made drones being used by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Gruen said that Ukraine has about 10 of Fortem’s drones currently in operation, but that more are on the way.

“From start to finish it takes about three days to learn how to operate the system,” Gruen added.

— Amanda Macias

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the last remaining backup power line at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant still needs to be repaired.

“Without the backup line, any damage to the 750 kV line [main external power line] will result in total loss of all off-site power to the plant,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement.

Grossi said that the backup power supply line has been disconnected and damaged since the beginning of March, and that the overall situation at the plant “remains perilous.”

“I once again call for a commitment from all sides to secure nuclear safety and security protection at the plant,” he said.

— Amanda Macias

At least seven people have died following a Russian drone strike on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Head of Kyiv’s regional police Andriy Nebytov said on Telegram that “a total of 12 drones were shot down by security and defense forces in the Kyiv region during the attack by the occupiers.”

Nebytov said that nine people so far have been injured from the attack, which was carried out by Iranian-made drones.

— Amanda Macias

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visit Ukrainian soldiers on the Bakhmut frontline in eastern Ukraine.

-Ukrainian Presidency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine hit with deadly strikes after China’s Xi leaves Moscow; Zelenskyy visits frontline city Bakhmut


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