Ukrainian forces appear to have come close to retaking the key Russian-held city of Kreminna in Luhansk province as heavy fighting continued in the east and south of the country.
Lugansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said fighters in a part of the city controlled by the Russian command were forced to retreat to Rubizhne, a town a few miles to the southeast, as a result of Ukrainian military pressure.
“The Russians understand that if they lose Kreminna, their entire line of defense will fall,” Haidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday. “The Russian occupation troops managed to build a very powerful defense in a month, even a little more. They are bringing in a large amount of reserves and equipment. They are constantly renewing their forces.”
The Guardian was unable to independently confirm the battlefield developments.
Recapturing Kreminna and nearby Svatove could open the way for Kyiv to launch an offensive in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, two cities Ukraine lost in the summer
Fierce fighting continues with no sign of imminent peace talks.
Late on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kyiv must accept Moscow’s demands for “demilitarization and denazification” or suffer defeat on the battlefield.
Lavrov’s remarks show the Kremlin has no intention of backing away from its maximalist goals of regime change in Ukraine, despite Vladimir Putin’s assertions on Sunday that Russia was ready for talks to end the war.
In its daily military briefing on Tuesday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian troops continued to focus their efforts on capturing the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.
Russian soldiers, together with fighters from the private military group Wagner, have been trying to seize Bakhmut since July, after reaching the outskirts of the city.
Bakhmut has been largely devastated after nearly five months of fighting and has been referred to by both sides as the “Bakhmut meat grinder”.
The battle for Bakhmut is seen as a major test for Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is believed to have recruited thousands of Russian convicts to help storm the city. Prigozhin has previously criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for its performance in Ukraine and praised Wagner as the country’s most capable fighting force.
In a video released on Monday and supposedly filmed near Bakhmut that will further fuel speculation about tensions within the Russian forces, two apparent Wagner soldiers are seen insulting the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.
“You are… the bloody devil. We don’t have anything to fight with, we don’t have projectiles,” one of the men is heard saying.
The Guardian was unable to independently verify the footage, but when questioned about the video by Russian journalists, Prigozhin appeared to express his approval of the soldiers’ actions, saying he traveled to Bakhmut to meet them.
“The guys asked me to convey that when you sit in a hot office, front-line issues are hard to listen to,” Prigozhin said in a statement, in an apparent attack on the country’s military high command.
Last Thursday, Ukraine claimed that Russia had “relocated” some of its planes away from the Engels airfield, that Moscow said it was attacked by a Ukrainian drone a day earlier, resulting in the death of three Russian servicemen.
“After the well-known events of yesterday, we see that the planes are scattered there, that is, strategic aviation… Of course, a certain number of planes are still there, but many of them have already been relocated to various airfields,” Colonel Yuriy Ignat, the main spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force Command, told the Ukrainian media.
Separately, Russia’s security services claimed they had “liquidated” four Ukrainian soldiers who were on a reconnaissance mission in the Bryansk region of southern Russia, near the border with Ukraine. If confirmed, the incident sheds light on the ongoing activities of Ukrainian saboteurs inside Russian territory.
Since the start of the war, various military targets, including oil and weapons depots, have been damaged after catching fire. Kyiv does not publicly admit to attacks inside Russia, but has previously applauded such incidents as revenge.
Also on Tuesday, Putin wrapped up his two-day “informal summit” in St. Petersburg with the heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-led group made up of former Soviet states, by presenting gold rings to the eight leaders present.
The meeting came amid growing unease between the Russian president and the rest of the CIS bloc as the nations have sought to distance themselves from Moscow’s faltering war.