Suspicions of Ukrainian advances in the war generate nervousness in Russia | International

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Aerial view of the devastated city of Marinka, in the Donetsk province, on Friday.ANDRIY YERMAK VIA TELEGRAM (via REUTERS)

Night had fallen over Moscow on Thursday when Russian social networks began firing alerts like a machine gun in the front line of fire. Pro-Russian bloggers claimed that the Ukrainian army had just launched its long-awaited counter-offensive and was now pounced on them from all sides: it was crossing the Dnieper river to advance towards the Crimea at the same time as it formed a cauldron in Bakhmut and bagged thousands of soldiers, attacked the neighboring town of Soledar and even prepared to cross the border, supposedly the great red line of the Kremlin, to conquer the Russian region of Belgorod. "The statements broadcast by individual Telegram channels about defense breakdowns that took place in various parts of the contact line do not correspond to reality," the Ministry of Defense came out almost at midnight.

The next morning, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, denied the official information, and hours later the Russian army acknowledged with a euphemism having "regrouped" in Bakhmut, the devastated city that has become in recent months the epicenter of the war.

One of the first signs of panic came from the northern border of Ukraine. “On the Internet it has started to spread that the troops of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are heading from the Kharkov region to Belgorod. We hasten to point out that this information does not correspond to reality. Ukrainian vehicles only move within Kharkiv, there is no offensive planned", was the not very reassuring message from the local news channel Dzhest Belgorod in the face of speculation about the arrival of the Ukrainian military at its doors. However, the rumors pointed precisely to a buildup of troops in its vicinity, not to any alleged attack at that time.

The information about the combats is usually contradictory and difficult to verify until after a while. The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed to have stopped an assault on a 95-kilometer-wide front towards Soledar, a town very close to Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, where a thousand soldiers and 40 Ukrainian armored cars would have taken part. However, kyiv has offered a totally different version. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that his forces were attacked by the Russians in that area and not only managed to stop them, but in some cases "drove them back".

The Ukrainian president stressed on Thursday that his army needs "a little more time" to prepare its counteroffensive, and this wait is getting very long in Moscow. The greatest proof of the tension that afflicts Russian officers has been the confrontation this Friday, another one, between the high command of their Armed Forces and the owner of the Wagner mercenary company. Prigozhin denied a victorious report from the Ministry of Defense on the defense of Bakhmut and ironized the military inexperience of its head, Sergei Shoigu. This new verbal battle was won by the businessman: hours later Moscow recognized with a play on words that it had given in to the Ukrainian push.

"The enemy has launched a series of successful counterattacks on the flanks of the Wagner Group, where units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are deployed," Prigozhin denounced the morning after the Defense Ministry claimed to have repulsed three attacks. Ukrainians in the city. Hours later, Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov qualified that the troops that supposedly cover Wagner's on that front had "regrouped."

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“Units of the Russian Southern Group have occupied another line on the Maloilinovsk front due to the favorable conditions offered by the Berkhovskoye reservoir. They showed their courage by repelling the enemy's attacks," said the Defense spokesman. Prighozin corrected his words and promised to retaliate with more details in the future: "Unfortunately, this is called a withdrawal, not a regroupment."

The owner of Wagner has once again insulted the Minister of Defense, although in a more subtle way than that used in recent days, when he came to call Shoigu and his chief of staff, Valeri Gerasimov, "bitches" for allegedly not providing him with ammunition . "Taking into account the difficult operational situation, as well as your many years of experience in combat operations, I ask you to come to the Bakhmut settlement and independently assess the current situation," Prigozhin has proposed to Shoigu with a veiled criticism of his no military career Former head of the Emergencies Ministry in the past, Vladimir Putin appointed Shoigu defense minister in 2012 thanks to the blind loyalty he showed him since the irruption in the 1990s of the now president on the Russian political scene.

"Panic is death"

One of the war and ultranationalist channels with the most pull in Russia due to its 1.3 million followers, WarGonzo, has criticized those who expressed their fear at what seemed to be the start of the Ukrainian offensive, and those who despised the attacks for having been relatively little ones. "Panic is death," warned one of the founders of the Telegram page, Semion Pegov, at the same time that he urged "to take seriously" the fighting that took place on Thursday.

“The enemy makes progress. Somewhere more, somewhere less, but it will have an impact on the further development of events. The offensive has not started today or yesterday, the enemy is looking for our weak points and trying to hit them,” the blogger warned late on Thursday.

The entire front adds up to around a thousand kilometers and the Russian high command is faced with the dilemma of which areas to protect with its worn-out army in the face of the imminent Ukrainian offensive, which in turn sows more doubts in Moscow by hitting everywhere. Igor Girkin, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who stormed more Russian soldiers into Donbas in 2014 and led the early stages of that war, has also joined the speculation.

“I have predicted that the main offensive will be at Zaporizhia—Russia's only land connection to Crimea—and auxiliaries at Kherson and (possibly) Donetsk. And they can inflict distraction attacks on [las regiones rusas de] Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk to capture settlements and cause the Russian Armed Forces to assault them”, predicted the soldier, one of the most critical of the Kremlin's direction of the war. "It would make me happy to be wrong, but I have little optimism," he said.

While the Russian troops entrench themselves, they are looking for reinforcements in the rear to avoid a new forced mobilization. The governor of the Primorye region, Oleg Kozhemyako, has presented a new “law on support for the participants of the special operation”. The authorities will give priority to receive housing to orphans who sign up as volunteers. Russian legislation establishes that the Government must give a roof to these people when they reach the age of 18, but there are currently some 288,000 orphans on the waiting list.

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