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Ukrainian forces have begun “shaping” operations in advance of a highly-anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces, a senior US military official and senior Western official tell CNN.
Shaping involves striking targets such as weapons depots, command centers and armor and artillery systems to prepare the battlefield for advancing forces. It's a standard tactic made prior to major combined operations.
When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive late last summer in the southern and northeastern parts of the country, it was similarly preceded by air attacks to shape the battlefield. These shaping operations could continue for many days before the bulk of any planned Ukrainian offensive, according to the senior US military official.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country still needs “a bit more time” before it launches the counteroffensive, in order to allow some more of the promised Western military aid to arrive in the country.
“With [what we have] we can go forward and be successful,” Zelensky told European public service broadcasters in an interview published on Thursday. “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable.”
“So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time,” he said.
Among the supplies Ukraine is still waiting for are armored vehicles — including tanks —which Zelensky said were “arriving in batches.”
Shaping operations can also be designed to confuse the enemy.
Last summer, Kharkiv had very little in the way of softening up; it was a lightning ground offensive. Most of the shaping came in Kherson, through long-range attacks on bridges, ammo stores and command centers. Most of these were carried out by HIMARS. There were some, but not many, air strikes.
CNN's Tim Lister contributed reporting.
In an unusual late-night post on its Telegram channel, the Russian Ministry of Defense has pushed back on claims that Ukrainian forces broke through parts of the front line around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
“The statements spread by individual telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ in various sections of the line of contact are not true,” the ministry statement reads.
The defense ministry said Russian assault units are making progress in the western part of Bakhmut with air and artillery support. It said troops are battling to repel Ukrainian troops "in the direction of Maloilyinovka" — apparently a reference to a village in the Bakhmut area.
“The enemy suffers significant losses in manpower and hardware,” the defense officials claimed.
What Ukraine says: A report from the Ukrainian military's General Staff Thursday described a "dynamic" situation in Bakhmut, claiming Kyiv's forces are heaping pressure on Russian fighters and probing weak spots in their lines.
A Ukrainian military officer said Ukraine is on the offensive in Bakhmut this week after months of defense. Kyiv has reported "effective counterattacks" around the eastern city despite constant Russian bombardment.
Russia's military shelled several towns and villages in the Zaporizhzhia region, injuring civilians and damaging property, according to the Ukrainian official leading the regional military administration there.
Meanwhile, the Russians have claimed they are eliminating deployment points of the Ukrainian military. Indirect fire in the region has intensified ahead of what observers expect to be a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Here are other key headlines to know:
International aid. The UK has donated Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, the British defense ministry confirmed Thursday. And Japan's finance minister announced Thursday that Japan will provide $1 billion to help Ukraine's neighbors in taking refugees from the war-stricken country.
The battle for Bakhmut. The Ukrainian military says Russia launched nearly 50 airstrikes over the last day as intense fighting puts pressure on forward Russian positions west of the city of Bakhmut. The military’s General Staff said Thursday that Russia also carried out six missile attacks. In an unusual late-night post on its Telegram channel, the Russian Ministry of Defense has pushed back on claims that Ukrainian forces broke through parts of the front line around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, the head of the Wagner private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has again complained that areas captured by his fighters around the eastern city of Bakhmut at the expense of heavy casualties are now being lost to the Ukrainians. And this week, the Ukrainian commander of a battalion involved in the country's attack on Russian positions near Bakhmut told CNN the first Russians to abandon the area were Wagner fighters, contradicting claims made by Prigozhin that regular Russian troops initially fled the battleground in eastern Ukraine.
Assassination attempt. The Russian-appointed governor of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region said an assassination attempt was made on a Russian-appointed court chairman there. The Zaporizhzhia judge is the latest target in a string of assassination attempts in Russian-occupied Melitopol in the last few weeks.
Potential prisoner swap. US President Joe Biden's administration is scouring the globe for offers that could entice Russia to release detained Americans Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, according to three sources familiar with the matter. The US considers both men wrongfully detained. It does not currently have any high-level Russian spies in its custody, current and former US officials say, driving the need to turn to allies for help.
US President Joe Biden's administration is scouring the globe for offers that could entice Russia to release detained Americans Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
The US considers both men wrongfully detained. It does not currently have any high-level Russian spies in its custody, current and former US officials say, driving the need to turn to allies for help.
The Biden administration is casting a wide net, approaching allied countries who have Russian spies in custody to gauge whether they would be willing to make a trade as part of a larger prisoner swap package.
But US officials have also been surveying allies without Russians in their custody, officials said, for ideas on what might entice Moscow to release US prisoners.
The White House is also exploring narrow sanctions relief, senior administration officials said.
The goal is to bring home Whelan and Gershkovich as part of the same deal, US officials have said privately, with two US officials telling CNN the administration wants to see what creative offers could gin up Russian interest.
US officials’ outreach extends to some countries that have recently arrested alleged Russian spies, including Brazil, Norway and Germany, as well as a former Soviet bloc country, to discuss the possibility of including them in any potential prisoner swaps.
Germany has a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy agency named Vadim Krasikov in its custody. He is widely seen as being atop Russia’s list of prisoners it wants back.
While some of these efforts predate Gershkovich’s detention, they have continued to intensify since The Wall Street Journal reporter was arrested in March, with White House officials directly engaged on the matter, officials said.
“Efforts to reach out to allies and partners have been intense for many months and intensified even further once it became clear that there was no way to bring Whelan home at the same time as Brittney Griner, given Russian refusal to release Whelan,” said a senior administration official. “That recognition led the US government to redouble efforts with new creativity to find a way to bring Whelan home, too.”
In context with the war in Ukraine: Gershkovich’s arrest marked the first time an American journalist has been detained on accusations by Moscow of spying since the Cold War. It has been viewed by news organizations as another sign of the Kremlin’s crackdown on foreign media outlets since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Russia's detentions of Griner, Whelan and Gershkovich have raised fears they could be used as pawns in the geopolitics surrounding the war.
The Ukrainian military says Russia launched nearly 50 airstrikes over the last day as intense fighting puts pressure on forward Russian positions west of the city of Bakhmut.
The military’s General Staff said Thursday that Russia also carried out six missile attacks.
Russian forces continue to advance around Bakhmut and have carried out a number of airstrikes in the area, Kyiv's military said. But Ukrainian forces have exploited gaps in Russian flanks south and west of the city to recapture some territory, according to the General Staff.
One officer deployed in the area said Ukraine was in an “active offensive phase” around Bakhmut, after months of mainly defensive action.
“Right now, dynamic events are taking place on both the southern and northern flanks of Bakhmut, but we will not talk about the result yet,” Maj. Maksym Zhorin said on Telegram.
Russian writers weigh in: Some Russian military bloggers have painted a gloomy picture of Russia's prospects around Bakhmut.
One of them, Sasha Simonov, said units of Russia’s 4th Army Brigade had withdrawn from an area west of the city. This is consistent with Ukrainian reports of advances there earlier this week.
Ukrainian fighters have also attempted a breakthrough near Bohdanivka, which is northwest of Bakhmut, Simonov said.
Elsewhere: Russia's efforts to advance in eastern Ukraine are focused on four parts of the front line in the Donetsk region, Ukraine's military said. Russia has failed in recent efforts to break through to the town of Lyman in Donetsk, it added.
In the northeastern Kharkiv region, it appears there has been less fighting around Kupyansk, which Russia frequently targeted with shelling and ground attacks earlier this year, the General Staff said.
In recent days, the boss of the Russian private military company Wagner seems to have gone into social media meltdown, flooding his Telegram channel and other accounts with ever-more outrageous and provocative statements.
Among other things, Prigozhin revealed an apparently humiliating battlefield setback for Russia, saying a Russian brigade had “fled” around the eastern city of Bakhmut, threatening his troops with encirclement by Ukrainian forces.
Earlier in the week, Prigozhin marred Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations with public and profanity-laced criticisms of the country’s top military brass.
And then there was a more cryptic comment that raised eyebrows on social media. Continuing a longstanding public complaint that Russia’s uniformed military was starving his troops of shells, Prigozhin suggested that the higher-ups were dithering while Wagner fighters died.
A political operator: The Wagner boss has seen his political star rise in Russia in recent months as his fighters seemed to be the only ones capable of delivering tangible battlefield progress in the grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. And he has used his social media clout to lobby for what he wants, including those sought-after ammunition supplies.
But amid those successes — particularly in the meat grinder of Bakhmut — Prigozhin has revived and amplified a feud with Russia’s military leadership. A canny political entrepreneur, Prigozhin has cast himself as a competent, ruthless patriot — in contrast with Russia’s inept military establishment.
It may seem surprising in a country where criticizing the military can potentially cost a person a spell in prison that Prigozhin gets away with strident criticism of Putin’s generals. But Putin presides over what is often described as a court system, where infighting and competition among elites is in fact encouraged to produce results, as long as the “vertical of power” remains loyal to and answers to the head of state.
A step too far? But Prigozhin’s online tantrums seem to be crossing the line to open disloyalty, some observers say.
In a recent Twitter thread, the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said, “If the Kremlin does not respond to Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin it may further erode the norm in Putin’s system in which individual actors can jockey for position and influence (and drop in and out of Putin’s favor) but cannot directly criticize Putin.”
Speculation then centers on whether Prigozhin is politically expendable, whether his outbursts are a sort of clever deception operation — or, more troublingly for Putin, whether the system of loyalty that keeps the Kremlin running smoothly is starting to break down.
The Russian-appointed governor of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region said an assassination attempt was made on a Russian-appointed court chairman there.
“As a result of the assassination attempt, the judge was not injured, but two guards were injured, they are in a medical facility, they are provided with all the necessary assistance,” the governor, Yevgeny Balitsky, said on his Telegram channel.
The Zaporizhzhia judge is the latest target in a string of assassination attempts in Russian-occupied Melitopol in the last few weeks.
Last week, the deputy head of Melitopol's regional police department was hospitalized after an improvised explosive device went off outside a gate of a residential building.
On April 27, another police chief in Melitopol, Oleksandr Mishchenko, was killed when an improvised device exploded at the entrance to an apartment building.
The head of the Wagner private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has again complained that areas captured by his fighters around the eastern city of Bakhmut at the expense of heavy casualties are now being lost to the Ukrainians.
“The situation on the western flanks is developing according to the worst of the predicted scenarios. Those territories that were liberated with blood and lives of our comrades every day progressing by dozens or hundreds of meters during many months, today are abandoned almost without any fight by those who are supposed to hold our flanks," Prigozhin said in a Telegram message Thursday.
His perspective is in stark contrast to the views of one Ukrainian battalion commander in the area, who told CNN that it was Russian regular forces that were putting up the stiffest resistance, while Wagner units had been the first to run.
According to one well-known Russian military blogger in the area, the task of defending the flanks around Bakhmut was passed to regular Russian forces, while Wagner has consolidated its presence in the city itself.
One Ukrainian commander in the Bakhmut area said Thursday that Ukrainian units had struck at the Russians’ flanks and the enemy had retreated. However, Taras Deyak of the Karpatska Sich tactical group told Radio Liberty, that the situation remains "very difficult, very tense and at times uncontrollable.”
Geolocated footage published since Tuesday also shows that “Ukrainian forces likely conducted successful limited counterattacks north of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Bila Hora (southwest of Bakhmut) and made marginal advances in these areas,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Here's a look at the state of control: