Mercenary group's feud with Russian military heats up as Ukraine offensive begins: Updates

The leader of the mercenary outfit that spearheaded Russia’s capture of the eastern Ukraine city of Bakhmut said his soldiers will refuse to join Russia’s regular forces.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said Sunday his fighters will flatly reject a new order by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu requiring they sign contracts with the ministry by July 1 to integrate into the regular army, a decision believed to target Wagner.

"Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu," Prigozhin said through his press service. "Shoigu cannot properly manage military formations."

Prigozhin’s remarks figure to further intensify his long-running feud with Russian military leaders, at a time when Moscow’s forces have begun to confront Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Shoigu’s decree was announced Saturday in a Defense Ministry statement that did not mention Wagner, rather saying the requirement was intended to "increase the effectiveness" of Russian forces battling Ukraine and would "give volunteer formations the necessary legal status."

Prigozhin wasn’t buying it. He has assailed the ministry’s war strategy and repeatedly accused it of failing to properly arm his soldiers. In response, the ministry banned him from recruiting imprisoned Russian convicts.

"Wagner Group coordinates its actions with generals and has the best experience and a highly effective structure. Unfortunately, most military units do not have such efficiency," Prigozhin said, blaming Shoigu for the failure.

A man tries to extinguish a fire at a residential house that was hit during Russian shelling next to a flooded area on June 9, 2023, in Kherson, Ukraine. Early Tuesday, the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant, which sit on the Dnipro River in the southern Kherson region, were destroyed, forcing downstream communities to evacuate due to the risk of flooding. The cause of the dam's collapse is not yet confirmed, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of its destruction. The Dnipro River has served as a frontline between the warring armies following Russia's retreat from Kherson and surrounding areas last autumn. The dam and plant had been controlled by Russia, which occupies a swath of land south and southeast of the river.


◾ The Kakhovka dam's breach has most likely disrupted the usual supply of fresh water to Crimea, forcing Russian authorities to impose rationing, use reservoirs, drill new wells, and bring in bottled water to meet the needs of the population in the occupied peninsula, the British Defense Ministry said.

◾ The Ukrainian military said the counteroffensive has yielded control of three villages − Blahodatne, Makarivka and, Neskuchne − in the partially occupied eastern province of Donetsk.

◾ Russia’s Defense Ministry said it foiled an attack on one of its ships in the Black Sea, destroying six unmanned speedboats and preventing any damage to the ship. The claim could not be independently verified.

◾ The warring parties completed a prisoner exchange Sunday, as 95 Ukrainians were released and 94 Russians gained their freedom.

Russians hinder flood evacuations with attacks, officials say

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about 4,000 people have been evacuated from the country's south following the collapse of the Kakhovka dam, which he blames on Russia.

Rescue efforts for the dozens of towns and villages still flooded have been hampered by Russian shelling and other attacks, including one Sunday that left three civilians dead and 23 wounded when Moscow's troops fired at a boat evacuating people from Russian-occupied areas to Ukrainian-held territory, Kherson province Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said.

"Even beasts are more moral than you, Russian state," Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, revealing that the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation on the dam disaster.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces are also behind the breach of a dam on the Mokri Yaly River in the Donetsk province, which caused flooding on both banks, the Kyiv Independent reported. Spokesperson Valeriy Shershen said the Russians blew up the dam to curtail the Ukrainian offensive, but said the attempt would fail.

"They expect a breakthrough of our defense forces, therefore, in order to slow down our advance, they use this tactic,” Shershen said, according to the Independent.

Expect Ukraine offensive to face early difficulties, institute says

Zelenskyy has confirmed the counteroffensive is underway, and the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the Ukrainians carried out operations Saturday in at least four areas of the 600-mile front. It promises to be an arduous task, and Zelenskyy has already warned to expect extensive loss of life.

Russia has had months to set up defenses, and its strategy in southern Ukraine is based on three main elements, the institute said, citing an unidentified Russian military blogger: "Early detection and destruction of Ukrainian assault formations, massive use of anti-tank weapons, and mining of territories near Russian defensive positions."

That approach has already been evident in the Kremlin’s initial defense of territory it has claimed in the Zaporizhzhia province, where the Ukrainians were pushed back after initial breakthroughs, the institute said, adding that the early going figures to be extremely difficult for Kyiv’s forces.

"Ukrainian forces are currently attempting an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority – and these initial assaults should not be extrapolated to predict all Ukrainian operations," the institute’s assessment said.

American musician arrested in Russia on drug charges

Another American has been arrested on drug charges in Russia, potentially setting up a thorny situation at a time of extremely high tension between Washington and Moscow.

Musician and former paratrooper Michael Travis Leake, who goes by his middle name, was arrested Tuesday in Moscow and "charged with large-scale illegal production, sale or trafficking of narcotic drugs," the state-owned TASS news agency said. Leake, 51, faces up to 12 years in prison, TASS reported. He was the frontman of the Russian rock band Lovi Noch, which translates to "Seize the Night."

The State Department said in a statement the U.S. government knows of reports an American was arrested in Moscow.

"When a US citizen is detained overseas, the department pursues consular access as soon as possible and works to provide all appropriate consular assistance," the statement said.

The Biden administration is already contesting the late-March detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on espionage allegations that he, the U.S., and his employer deny. Gershkovich’s pretrial detention has been extended until at least Aug. 30. The government is also trying to gain the release of American businessman Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence on spying charges.

In December, WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed in a prisoner exchange after a nearly 10-month imprisonment in Russia on drug allegations that resulted in a conviction and sentence of more than nine years.

As the war with Ukraine approached in February 2022, the State Department advised Americans to leave Russia because of the risk of being targeted by authorities there, repeating that urging several times since.

Leake taught English when he first moved to Moscow in 2010 and translated songs for Russian bands, according to Reuters, which reported his rock group hadn’t played a concert since 2019.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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