Russia-Ukraine war: Wagner founder challenges Zelensky to a dogfight for control of Bakhmut

The founder of Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group challenged Volodymyr Zelensky to a dogfight on Monday for the 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.

While the Russian efforts appear to be focused on Bakhmut, Kyiv has warned it is preparing for a large-scale offensive by Moscow’s forces as it attempts to regain the initiative.

Ukrainian gunners fire at Russian positions in Bakhmut - Adrien Vautier/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA/Shutterstock/Shutterstock
Ukrainian gunners fire at Russian positions in Bakhmut – Adrien Vautier/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA/Shutterstock/Shutterstock© Adrien Vautier/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

In recent months, Mr Prigozhin has sought to promote his image publicly as part of a rumoured attempt to oust and replace Russia’s beleaguered defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.

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 Prigozhin’s Wagner Group have spearheaded a brutal eight-month-long effort by Russia to capture the town, although analysts argue it has little military significance.

But in recent weeks, regular, well-trained Russian troops have been brought in to lead what could be the final charge, also dealing a blow to Mr Prigozhin’s standing with the Kremlin.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Monday that “there is a complete lack of coordination and interaction” between the Russian military and Prigozhin’s mercenaries attempting to encircle Bakhmut.

A growing number of Ukrainian officials, including Mr Zelensky, have issued warnings over expected Russian plans to launch a new offensive on the Donbas and southern areas of the country.

Bakhmut - AFP
Bakhmut – AFP© Provided by The Telegraph

“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.

“To try to avenge their last year’s defeats. We see this increased pressure in various areas of the front line, as well as pressure in the information field,” he added.

It is believed that Russia hopes to capture the rest of the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine during its next major offensive.

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.

On Monday, 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.”

He added that Russia had plans to mobilise between 300,000 and 500,000 conscripts to support the offensives in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Kyrylo Budanov - AFP
Kyrylo Budanov – AFP© Provided by The Telegraph

Andriy Chernyak, an official in Ukraine’s military intelligence, has said Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had ordered his armed forces to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two halves of the Donbas, by March.

A renewed assault on Kyiv has yet to be ruled out, but Ukrainian and Nato officials have poured cold water on Russia’s chances of succeeding.

Russia has some 326,000 troops inside Ukraine, according to Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence.

It means half of the 300,000 men Moscow mobilised last autumn have been given months of training, meaning they could be more effective than recruits sent straight to war.

But Kyiv believes elite units, many of which had been recalled to Russia to be replenished, would spearhead any expected offensives.

What we learned today

  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, has challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a dogfight for Bakhmut.
  • Germany expects that it will soon have sufficient commitments from other European Union countries to send a promised contingent of Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine, a German government spokesperson said on Monday.
  • The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a strong supporter of President Vladimir Putin, worked for Soviet intelligence while living in Switzerland in the 1970s, Swiss newspapers reported, citing declassified archives.
  • China is sending technology used by Moscow’s military to wage war against Ukraine to Russia, new trade data has revealed, as Iran moves forward with plans to build a new factory that could make at least 6,000 kamikaze drones.
  • A senior Ukrainian official said on Monday that no personnel changes would be announced at the defence ministry this week, despite saying earlier that Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister, would be replaced.

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