Russia appeared to concede Friday that its troops had lost ground around a key eastern city, but rejected suggestions of a broader Ukrainian breakthrough after the losses fueled panicked speculation that a long-awaited counteroffensive had begun.
Kyiv’s forces seem to have driven back Moscow’s troops in some areas around Bakhmut this week, claiming its first significant gains in months. Though the advance was modest, it raised new doubts about the Kremlin’s hopes of seizing a symbolic victory in the city and fueled broader fears among Russian observers about the military’s positions across the front lines of the war.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a late-night comment that statements “circulated by individual Telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ that took place in various parts of the front line do not correspond to reality.”
The general situation in the area of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine “is under control,” it added.
The words of reassurance came after a number of influential Russian military bloggers and correspondents raised the alarm, suggesting that forces around Bakhmut may now be at risk of encirclement and that a larger Ukrainian counteroffensive may even have begun after months of anticipation and preparation.
Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who first spoke furiously about Russian military units fleeing around Bakhmut earlier this week, called Friday for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to come and assess the situation for himself.
For its part, Kyiv confirmed its army’s advances on the outskirts of Bakhmut, but appeared to rebuff the idea that it had launched a major push to seize back occupied land.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Friday that the country’s army had retaken about “2 kilometers” (1.2 miles) in the direction of Bakhmut.”
Kyiv continues to be on the defensive, but this doesn’t exclude occasional counterattacks and active actions, she said. “Actually, this situation in the east has been going on for several months,” she wrote on Telegram. “That’s it! Nothing more is happening.”
After meeting with his military commanders Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces “stopped the enemy” and “even pushed him back in some directions.” He said in an interview released Thursday that Ukraine needed more time to launch the counteroffensive.
Hours later, Russia's defense ministry issued a new update in which it appeared to admit the Ukrainians had made gains around Bakhmut.
Some Russian troops had moved to positions "along the Berkhovsky reservoir, taking into account its favorable conditions," it said in a post on Telegram, "in order to increase the stability of the defense."
This amounted to “the first time we’ve got an official confirmation from the Russian Ministry of Defense that the Russian army is ceding ground near Bakhmut,” Michael A. Horowitz, head of intelligence at the Le Beck consultancy, told NBC News.
Prigozhin shot back swiftly, saying that the situation being described was "unfortunately called fleeing, and not ‘regrouping’."
It was another attack on the Kremlin's beleaguered top brass in a bitter public feud over the battle, which has become the focal point of the war in a brutal fight that has drained both sides.
The mercenary chief also added his voice to those speculating that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was, in fact, in full swing.
The ministry had appeared to be responding not to Ukraine, but to Russian military bloggers who filled social media with alarmed messages late Thursday that talked in frenzied tones about Ukrainian advances and signs the counteroffensive may have already begun.
“The Kyiv regime began the implementation of an operation to encircle our forces in the Artyomovsk direction,” wrote Evgeny Poddubny, one of the most influential military reporters and bloggers, referring to Russia’s alternative name for Bakhmut.
He also reported that Ukrainians managed a breakthrough near Soledar, another key city in the eastern Donbas region, just northeast of Bakhmut.
“Let’s assume that the enemy counteroffensive has begun,” Poddubny added.
Another influential war reporter and blogger, Alexander Kots, even suggested that Ukrainian tanks were headed toward the Russian border around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
“That is, Kyiv, in parallel with the start of offensive operations along the flanks of Artyomovsk, decided to aggravate the situation along the northern front,” he wrote on Telegram. “One can only guess about the goals of the maneuver.”
NBC News has not verified the claims.
Prigozhin had threatened to abandon the battle after accusing military leaders of not supplying his fighters with sufficient ammunition.
Earlier this week, he claimed that one of the military’s brigades abandoned its positions, giving up a crucial chunk of territory on his forces’ flanks. “Our army is on the run,” he claimed, just as Moscow celebrated its revered Victory Day.
In a statement addressed to Shoigu on Friday, Prigozhin wrote that Wagner still controls 95% of Bakhmut, but because of Russia’s regular army, “the enemy undertook a number of successful counterattacks.”
In a sarcasm-laden post, he called on Shoigu to use his “many years of experience in combat operations,” of which the minister doesn’t have any as he is not a career soldier, to properly assess the situation in Bakhmut.
“Prigozhin’s and the MoD’s responses are reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives and indicate increased concern among Wagner and Russian MoD leadership as well as reflecting Kremlin guidance to avoid downplaying Ukrainian successes,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its daily assessment Thursday, referring to the Russian Defense Ministry.