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Wagner Group’s Biber and Dolik to remain in Bakhmut, Russia sends nuclear weapons to Belarus. What happened on the front line on May 25?

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In today's summary:

  • Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said he has begun withdrawing the group’s units from Bakhmut, but will leave two fighters, Biber and Dolik, in the city, dealing another jab to Russia's Ministry of Defense;
  • Alexander Lukashenko claims Russian tactical nuclear weapons are now being transferred to the territory of Belarus;
  • Russia launches large-scale kamikaze drone raid on Ukraine – all deployed Shaheds intercepted;
  • The Russian reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs has been confirmed to have been hit by a maritime drone;
  • Exchange of POWs brokered by the Wagner PMC: Ukrainians return 106 soldiers and the bodies of three killed;
  • Sweden will allow Ukrainian pilots to undergo basic training on JAS 39 Gripen jet fighters;
  • Another lost FAB-500 air bomb was found in Belgorod Oblast;
  • A remarkable video of a Challenger 2 tank – a large number of which were recently handed over to the AFU – crossing a line of “concrete pyramids” has been making the rounds on social media.

The front line

The press service of one of the founders and the main public spokesman of the Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, reported on the withdrawal of the group’s mercenaries from Bakhmut. “We are withdrawing to the rear areas. [...] By June 1, we will all gather, [and] hand over [our positions] to the [Russian] military,” says Prigozhin in a video published on Telegram.

According to Prigozhin, units of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will be given “ammunition, positions, everything, including dry rations.”

“But if it is difficult for the military, certainly we will leave those who had a major role in the capture of Bakhmut,” he says, and calls up two fighters with the call signs “Biber” and “Dolik.”

Unlike the rest of the Wagner mercenaries in the video, these fighters are shown with open faces. It is possible that they were recruited from Russia’s prisons, or have some other “lesser” status, so Prigozhin's statement can be seen not only as another attack on Russia’s MoD, but also as a humiliation for the entire Russian Armed Forces.

Romanov Lite, a well-known Telegram channel among pro-Russian media, reported that 30 former prisoners, apparently recruited into military units under the auspices of the Russian Defense Ministry, deserted their positions with weapons in Bakhmut. They allegedly killed three servicemen and two civilians, and stole a KAMAZ truck and a Mitsubishi L200 pickup truck. Earlier, the BBC Russian Service published a detailed report on the recruitment of prisoners into the “Storm” units in detail.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar continued to insist that Ukrainian forces are holding an area in the southwestern part of Bakhmut.

The Telegram channel of the so-called “People's Militia of the DPR” published a report from Bakhmut. The footage depicts a completely destroyed city.

The Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti released drone footage of Bakhmut. The video also shows serious destruction.

Russian and Belarusian defense ministers Sergei Shoigu and Viktor Khrenin signed documents defining the conditions for keeping Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in a special storage facility in Belarus.

“Russia is not transferring nuclear weapons to the Republic of Belarus: control over them and the decision on their use remains with the Russian side,” Shoigu said during the meeting.

Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Studies, told The Insider that the signing of the agreement on the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus looks like a purely political move:

«It cannot be ruled out that everything will be limited to that, and there may not be any real relocation of [nuclear warheads] to the territory of Belarus. There are many reasons for that, including the resistance of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which [is made up of] responsible and conservative [people]. I hope for bureaucratic and institutional resistance to the relocation of the munitions, because [then] troops have to be moved [to Belarus] and so forth. It's a complicated and long process. I hope that everything will be limited to a political statement and that there will be nothing but that.”

The expert noted that where the storage facility will be built is not yet known, although Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed its construction would be complete by July 1:

“In my opinion, it is difficult to create a full-fledged nuclear munitions storage facility from scratch by July that will be provided with all the necessary security and maintenance systems. Probably they will just choose some facility that is already under control and say that there is a possibility to place nuclear weapons there. The weapons themselves may not be placed there, but there will simply be a storage facility with the possibility of their placement, and if the decision is made, the charges will be transferred there.”

From the practical and military point of view, according to Podvig, this does not change anything, as there is no significant difference in the territory from which the carrier aircraft will take off or the launch will be carried out: from Russia or from Belarus.

In a March 2023 conversation with The Insider, Mariana Budjeryn, a Senior Research Associate at the Managing the Atom (MTA) Project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, pointed out that the Kremlin's decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus is a continuation of nuclear scare tactics directed at the West.

Alexander Lukashenko claimed that the relocation of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus has already begun.

Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, said in an interview with the Italian TV channel RAI that the repeatedly announced counteroffensive by the AFU has already begun, and has been underway for several days. The Insider notes that Podolyak already made a similar statement a week and a half ago in an interview with the German newspaper Bild.

The Insider notes that so far there are no signs of truly large-scale offensive actions by the AFU or the use of newly delivered Western military equipment anywhere along the line of contact.

Shelling and sabotage

The command of the AFU’s Air Force reported that on the night of May 25, 36 Shahed (aka Geran) kamikaze drones launched from Russian territory were intercepted. The drones were launched from both the north and the south, and their targets were probably in the western regions of Ukraine.

Polish military analyst Konrad Muzyka cited consolidated data from reports by the AFU General Staff on the interceptions of Shahed-type kamikaze drones in Ukraine. According to the data, the latest raid saw the third highest number of UAVs engaged out of all of Russia’s Shahed strikes; the attack was the largest since the end of January.

Six UAVs were brought down by electronic warfare and shot down by air defense forces in different areas of Crimea. According to a claim made by the Russia-installed regional governor Sergei Aksyonov in his Telegram channel, there were no victims or casualties.

According to the Telegram-channel Rybar, affiliated with the Russian Defense Ministry, seven Mugin-5 drones were launched from the Shkolny airfield near Odesa in the direction of Crimea. According to these reports, air defense and electronic warfare systems destroyed five drones and brought down two Mugin-5 UAVs. One of the UAVs landed on a warehouse north of Dzhankoi, causing a small fire. 15-16 drone launches were initially reported, but this information has not been confirmed.

The drones, as noted by Rybar, could have been moving in the direction of Dzhankoi or towards the airfield to the south, near Slavne. One UAV was also shot down near the village of Maslove, and could have been heading towards a railway line or military depots in the southeast. To the south, one UAV was destroyed near the village of Zavitne. Its target was likely a water pumping station.

A drone attack was also confirmed in Sevastopol. “The Black Sea Fleet forces shot down two UAVs near Kachi with small arms, and several more drones were jammed and brought down by electronic warfare systems. No buildings in the city were damaged,” wrote the city's Russia-installed “governor” Mikhail Razvozzhayev.

A video of the attack by Ukrainian crewless kamikaze boats on the medium reconnaissance Yuriy Ivanov class (Project 18280) ship Ivan Khurs has surfaced online. Contrary to the Russian Defense Ministry’s statements, a maritime drone still appears to have hit the ship.

Ukrainian sources published the video from a camera of one of the drones that attacked the Russian vessel. The footage shows the drone reaching the side of the Ivan Khurs. After that, the footage cuts off, which is typical for footage from any kamikaze drones – both aerial and maritime.

A video earlier released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows one of the three claimed drones being hit. It is so far unknown what happened to the third drone (and whether there was one at all).

The Telegram channel Rybar claimed that there is no information about any serious damage, the ship remains afloat, meaning that the Ukrainian drone that struck it did not work or was destroyed.

Other sources also reported the ship sustaining minor damage. Igor Girkin (also known by the surnames Strelkov and Runov), a former field commander of separatist forces in Donbas, wrote that the Ivan Khurs is on its way for repairs, according to what he called “unverified, but still data.”

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported the prevention of sabotage, allegedly planned for May 9 [Victory over Nazi Germany Day – The Insider] at the Leningrad and Kalinin nuclear power plants. In a press release, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) said that one of the sabotage groups tried to blow up more than 30 supports of high-voltage power lines at the nuclear power plants. According to the FSB, “the terrorists managed to blow up one pylon and plant mines at four transmission pylons of the Leningrad nuclear power plant and to place bombs under seven pylons of the Kalinin nuclear power plant.”

Four people were reportedly detained in connection to the incident: two citizens of Ukraine, Alexander Maystruk and Eduard Usatenko, and two Russians, whose names are not disclosed, accused of helping them. Yuri Kishchak, who has both Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, has been put on a wanted list. Kishchak is currently in Belgium, according to the FSB.

It is alleged that Maistruk, Usatenko and Kishchak were recruited last September by an SBU officer, Lieutenant Colonel Vitaly Horbatyuk, after which they were trained at facilities in the Kyiv and Mykolaiv regions. They allegedly entered Russia via the border with Belarus, making their way into the Pskov region.

Russian sources reported the shelling of Horlivka from MLRS systems and mortars. Seven people were wounded, including two children.

New information has emerged about the organization of the drone attack on the Kremlin in early May. US intelligence suggested that Ukraine may have been behind the attack on the night of May 3. CNN and The New York Times reported the findings, citing officials and sources familiar with the intelligence. However, the US has not yet been able to draw a definitive conclusion regarding those responsible for the attack.

“U.S. officials say their level of confidence that the Ukrainian government directly authorized the Kremlin drone attack is ‘low’ but that is because intelligence agencies do not yet have specific evidence identifying which government officials, Ukrainian units or operatives were involved,” the NYT article read.

Losses

According to analyst Rob Lee, the losses of the Wagner PMC, as earlier outlined by Yevgeny Prigozhin, are likely to be exaggerated. Due to Prigozhin’s conflict with the Russian Defense Ministry, it is to his advantage to exaggerate the data, Lee said. Based on calculations carried out by independent media outlet Mediazona, Lee agrees with the opinion of Radio Liberty journalist Mark Krutov that the real losses of prisoners and mercenaries are not 20,000, but rather about 16,000.

Ukraine reported the return of 106 prisoners who had fallen into Russian hands in the Bakhmut direction. The information appeared in the Telegram channel of Andriy Yermak, the Head of the Office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to Yermak, among those returned, many were listed as missing. Three bodies of killed soldiers – two foreigners and a Ukrainian – have also been returned, according to a Radio Liberty report citing Ukrainska Pravda and Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (HUR).

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s press service confirmed that the exchange took place between the Ukrainian side and the Wagner PMC. According to the published commentary and video, the two foreigners whose bodies were returned to Ukraine by the Wagner Group were citizens of the US and Turkey.

The prisoners returned to Russia served in the country’s 2nd Army Corps, the 9th Motorized Rifle Division, the 155th Separate Marine Brigade (part of Russia’s Pacific Fleet) and the Chechen “Akhmat” brigade.

The Insider recently reported about the suspicions of independent researchers about the authenticity of photos depicting allegedly destroyed military equipment in the Belgorod region. Soldiers that took part in the raid explained to Novaya Gazeta Europe that “the [Humvees] fell into the trenches at the checkpoint. The flimsy log bridges couldn't support heavy equipment.”

A participant of the raid also said that at the border crossing point there were “concrete long-term firing points connected with trenches and four or five APCs with 30-millimeter guns and heavy machine guns,” two of which were started up and taken as trophies. He claims that about 10 vehicles and armored carriers made it to the border because of the slush, and that there were close to 150 people that took part in the raid. According to the source, at one point, the Russian military began firing artillery not only at the outskirts where the “sabotage group” was located, but also at the buildings they were supposed to have seized: the FSB office, the Interior Ministry, and the local administration.

The Ukrainian media reported that a Russian Su-25 fighter jet was shot down near Melitopol and made an emergency landing. The information was also confirmed by Russian pro-war channels. According to Ukrainian sources, a MANPADS was used in the attack, and the jet’s pilot managed to eject. Ukrainian sources say that another Su-25 was also shot down, but there is currently no confirmation of that. Dramatic images of smoke were also published, reportedly from the direction of the airfield.

The Wall Street Journal has published a piece about the losses of Ukrainian mobilized troops in Bakhmut. The article details 36 hours during which Russian troops stormed one of the city’s apartment buildings, which was being defended by a group of 16 mobilized Ukrainians, many of whom had been drafted a few days earlier and had received no training. As a result, 11 of them were killed or taken prisoner.

Arms supplies

The first 20 Ukrainian pilots will be sent to the UK for F-16 fighter pilot training, according to a report by Foreign Policy. “This will be ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots who will then be ready for more specific F-16 [or other] training,” said a UK government spokesman.

Norway will also take part in training the pilots, but has not yet decided whether it will hand over the planes themselves, announced the country's Defense Minister, Bjorn Arild Gram. The Netherlands was the first country to announce its willingness to hand over the jets to Ukraine.

Sweden is also going to start training Ukrainian pilots on Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighters. According to analysts, these planes are better suited to the Ukrainian army than the American F-16, as they are cheaper and easier to master, says The Economist (although it is worth noting that their number is very limited).

Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson also noted that six JAS 39 Gripen squadrons, which are in service with the Swedish Defense Forces, are needed for their own defensive needs, so Ukraine is unlikely to receive any aircraft of that type for now.

On Wednesday, the United States approved a $285 million sale of a NASAMS air defense system and related equipment to Ukraine as Kyiv seeks to bolster its defense against Russian strikes. “This proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of a partner country that is a force for political stability and economic progress in Europe [...] and will be no adverse impact on U.S. defense readiness as a result of this proposed sale,” the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.

A Wall Street Journal article claims that South Korea is secretly transferring hundreds of thousands of artillery munitions to Ukraine for the upcoming counterattack. According to US officials, the move will also allow the White House to delay the difficult decision to supply cluster munitions.

Japan has transferred over 100 trucks and SUVs to Ukraine. Japanese Vice Defense Minister Toshiro Ino handed over a document to Ukrainian Ambassador Serhii Korsunsky listing three types of vehicles included in the transfer. The list includes half-ton trucks, high mobility vehicles and material handling vehicles.

An unexploded FAB-500 air bomb was found in the village of Kalinino in the Belgorod region. Soviet bombs, such as the FAB-500, which are dropped from aircraft, are increasingly being used by Russia, noted The New York Times. The reason for the bombs’ use is that the Ukrainian air defense system is becoming more effective in shooting down Russian missiles and drones.

The FAB-500 is the fourth aerial bomb that has been found in the Belgorod region over the past month. At the end of April, several bombs fell from a Su-34 fighter jet flying over Belgorod – two FAB-500s fell on the city, one of which exploded. A third bomb, which had not detonated, was found on May 4th near the village of Golovchino.

A video of Challenger 2 tanks at an exercise breaching concrete barriers and engineering obstacles is making the rounds on social media.

Click here for The Insider's summary of the main events on the front line on May 24.

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