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Russia has likely tasked mercenaries to hold sections of the frontline in Ukraine due to a “major shortage” of combat infantry, British defence chiefs said on Friday, as Kyiv stepped up its counter-offensive in the south of the country.
Greater reliance on paid fighters from the Russian private military company Wagner Group for frontline duties rather than their usual work in special operations is seen as a further sign that Russia’s military is under stress six months into the war.
“This is a significant change from the previous employment of the group since 2015, when it typically undertook missions distinct from overt, large-scale regular Russian military activity,” the Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update.
“Wagner’s role has probably changed because the Russian MoD has a major shortage of combat infantry however Wagner forces are highly unlikely to be sufficient to make a significant difference in the trajectory of the war.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Friday that Russia was failing in “many areas” in the war and President Vladimir Putin might seek to change strategy again. “The Russians are failing at the moment on the ground in many areas... Putin’s plan A, B, and C has failed and he may look to plan D,” he told Sky News.
It comes as officials in Kyiv say they had observed a “massive redeployment” of Russian forces to the south where British defence officials believe Russia’s 49th Army, stationed on the west bank of the Dnipro River, is vulnerable.
Kyiv said it had stepped up its campaign to retake Russian-controlled Kherson by trying to bomb and isolate Russian troops in hard-to-resupply areas. Ukrainian planes struck five Russian strongholds around the city, that is occupied by Putin’s forces, and another nearby cityon Thursday as part of its counter-offensive.
Meanwhile Russia continued its missile strikes across Ukraine on Friday as Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv in the north east was hit. The city’s mayor said emergency services were looking for people under the rubble after a two storey building and a higher education institution were hit by shellingon Friday morning.
Fifteen people were injured when missiles hit military installations on the edge of Kyiv- on Thursday - the first bombings of the capital in weeks- as the country marked a new national holiday to celebrate its independence.
Five people were killed and 25 wounded in a separate Russian missile strike on a flight school in the central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi.
At least three people were killed and residential buildings hit as Russian forces shelled the town of Bakhmut, which has been cited by Russia as a prime target in its advance through Donetsk.