One thousand mercenaries from Putin’s private ‘Wagner’ army sent to eastern Ukraine, says UK

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Vladimir Putin’s “private army” of more than 1,000 mercenaries is being deployed to eastern Ukraine as he seeks to re-focus his stalled invasion on this part of the country, say British defence chiefs.

They believe the Wagner Group is being used after Russian forces suffered such heavy losses, with more than 10,000 troops believed to have been killed.

In its latest intelligence briefing on Monday night, the Ministry of Defence said: “Russian Private Military Company the Wagner Group has deployed to eastern Ukraine.

“They are expected to deploy more than 1,000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the organisation, to undertake combat operations.”

The defence chiefs added: “Due to heavy losses and a largely stalled invasion, Russia has highly likely been forced to reprioritise Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria.”

It comes after UK defence chiefs said Mr Putin’s troops had achieved “no significant change” in the previous 24 hours in seizing territory in Ukraine.

In the fifth week of the conflict, they stressed that Russian advances were being thwarted by “aggressive” Ukrainian resistance, a lack of momentum, poor morale among soldiers and continued logistical problems.

Russian troops have taken some ground, though, in the Mariupol area in southern Ukraine where they have been besieging the city for weeks, with reports that this is leaving some civilians to starve to death.

The Ministry of Defence said on Monday morning: “In the last 24 hours there has been no significant change to Russian Forces dispositions in occupied Ukraine.”

It added: “Ongoing logistical shortages have been compounded by a continued lack of momentum and morale amongst the Russian military, and aggressive fighting by the Ukrainians.”

However, it also stressed: “Russia has gained most ground in the south in the vicinity of Mariupol where heavy fighting continues as Russia attempts to capture the port.”

With his initial invasion plan having failed, Mr Putin now appears to be seeking to seize control of the breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine which includes Donetsk and Luhansk, two areas controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

However, his forces are believed to have already suffered at least 10,000 deaths and there is growing public disquiet in Russia at the invasion.

Even if he can seize the east of Ukraine, his army risks getting bogged down in an insurgency war for many years as happened in Afghanistan for Soviet troops, as well as later the US-led forces.

Speaking to The Economist, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said it was “just a question of time” before his country would emerge victorious, in words which echoed the Taliban saying to America forces: “You have the watches. We have the time.”

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He also signalled his willingness to discuss a neutral status for Ukraine as part of peace talks to end the conflict, but stressed Russia had to withdraw its troops.

Despite the horrors being inflicted by Mr Putin on Ukraine’s towns and cities, with tens of thousands of civilians feared killed, Mr Zelensky stressed his country still believed in victory.

“It’s impossible to believe in anything else. We will definitely win because this is our home, on our land, our independence. It’s just a question of time,” he said.

Mr Zelensky also praised Boris Johnson for his leadership role against the Russian invasion, claiming Germany was “making a mistake” ” as it tries to take a more balanced approach due to its deeper economic ties with Moscow.

His comments were followed by a late-night video interview on Sunday with independent Russian journalists in which he reiterated earlier statements that signalled he was willing to discuss neutrality with Russia.

The president added that Ukraine could consider offering security guarantees to the Kremlin involving his government agreeing to stay out of Nato.

Ukraine would also remain nuclear-free, he said.

He said the issue of neutrality should be put to Ukrainian voters in a referendum after Russian troops withdraw.

He said a vote could take place within a few months of the troops leaving.

In The Economist interview, the president said “Britain is definitely on our side” and is “not performing a balancing act”, but he declined to say whether the UK wants to end the war quickly at any cost.

When asked if the Prime Minister had been keener than France’s President Emmanuel Macron to send weapons, Mr Zelensky responded: “Yes. To be honest, Johnson is a leader who is helping more.

“The leaders of countries react according to how their constituents act. In this case, Johnson is an example.”

Mr Johnson has forged a close relationship with the Ukrainian leader, speaking to him regularly by phone.

The Prime Minister said sending the tanks and fighter jets Mr Zelensky pleaded for as he addressed a summit of Nato leaders last week would be very difficult “logistically” but did not rule it out.

But Mr Macron warned providing armoured vehicles and fighter jets could drag Nato into a direct conflict with Russia by crossing a “red line”.

Mr Zelensky put foreign nations into categories, ranging from those who want the conflict to end quickly by any means so they can keep access to Russian markets to those supporting the Ukrainian people who “want the war to end quickly at any cost”.

“Britain is definitely on our side. It is not performing a balancing act. Britain sees no alternative for the way out of the situation,” he said.

“Britain wants Ukraine to win and Russia to lose, but I’m not ready to say whether Britain wants the war to drag on or not.”

Meanwhile, the Government distanced the UK from Joe Biden’s apparent call for regime change in Moscow when he said in an impassioned speech that Mr Putin “cannot remain in power”.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said whether to overthrow Mr Putin for his invasion of Ukraine is “up to the Russian people” after the US President’s apparently unscripted call caused the White House to scramble to row back on the remark.

In a highly charged speech in Warsaw, Mr Biden appealed to Russian people directly with comparisons between the invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of the Second World War.

“For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power,” he said at the close of his speech about the Russian president he earlier described as a “butcher”.

But a White House official swiftly tried to clarify and argued that the US President’s point was that the Russian leader “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region”.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken insisted “we do not have a strategy of regime change” as the Kremlin said it is “not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia”.

French President Emanuel Macron said he “wouldn’t use those terms” voiced by Mr Biden and suggested they could make it harder to resolve the conflict, adding: “We want to stop the war that Russia launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation.”

Interviewed on Sunday, Mr Zahawi said it is “for the Russian people to decide how they are governed” but suggested they “would certainly do well” to have someone who “is democratic and understands their wishes”.

“That’s up to the Russian people and it is only the Russian people that can make that decision, I suspect most of them are pretty fed up with Putin and his cronies and the illegal war,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show.

But he declined to criticise Mr Biden, unlike Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, who said Mr Putin will now “spin this, dig in and fight harder”.

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov warned that the Russian president wants to split the country in two under a “Korean scenario”, referencing the split between North and South Korea.

His comments came after Moscow indicated it could scale back its offensive to focus on what it claimed was the “main goal, liberation of Donbas”, the region bordering Russia in the east of Ukraine.

Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are expected to begin in Turkey in the coming days.

Mr Zelensky has previously warned he would not give up territory in peace talks as he noted that his troops have delivered “powerful blows” to invading forces.

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