Wagner chief tells two mercenaries left in Bakhmut to ‘be nice’ to Russian army
Mercenaries from the Wagner group have begun handing over the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut to the regular Russian army and will leave the city by next week, the group’s founder said.
But in an escalation of his feud with the professional Russian military, Yevgeny Prigozhin added that he would leave behind two visibly unfit fighters to rescue the army when they got into difficulty.
“We are withdrawing units from Bakhmut today. We are handing over positions to the military, ammunition and everything,” Mr Prigozhin said in a video purportedly filmed in Bakhmut on Thursday morning. “We pull back, we rest, we prepare and then we will get new tasks.
“Here’s two guys we are leaving for the army. This is Biber and this is Dolik,” he said, presenting one very elderly and one extremely young fighter. “As soon as the army find things difficult, they’ll stand in the way of the Ukrainian army.
“Be nice to the soldiers, lads,” he added, in what was clearly intended as a joke at the army’s expense.
Mr Prigozhin was filmed telling mercenaries that the withdrawal would be complete by June 1.
There was no immediate confirmation. Ukrainian officials have previously described Mr Prigozhin’s frequent public announcements as misinformation.
Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut last week, marking the end of a nine-month battle that left the city in ruins and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Ukraine denies it has lost the city and claims to be maintaining a foothold in one outlying district.
It says it is also continuing counter-attacks on the Russian flanks to the north and south of the town.
Mr Prigozhin said Wagner played the key role in Russia’s capture of the city.
He has often used the mercenary group’s triumphs as leverage in a public feud with Sergei Shoigu, the head of the Ministry of Defence.
He has since admitted that 10,000 prisoners he recruited to fight there were killed in the course of the battle.
Ukraine said it secured the release of 106 of its soldiers in a prisoner swap near Bakhmut on Thursday.
The soldiers, including eight officers, were captured fighting in the defence of the city. There was no immediate information about the prisoners Russia received in exchange.
“Every one of them is a hero of our state. Many of the ones we are returning from captivity were considered missing. The relatives of these people have gone through a difficult time,” said Andriy Yermak, the head of President Zelensky’s office.
Meanwhile, Russia moved ahead on Thursday with a plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, signing a deal with its ally about the storage of the warheads at a special facility that should be finished in little more than a month.
The plan for the nuclear deployment, Moscow‘s first outside Russian borders since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, was announced by Putin in an interview with state television on Thursday.
“The collective West is essentially waging an undeclared war against our countries,” Mr Shoigu said at a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk, according to Russia’s defence ministry.
Today's liveblog is now closed
Thanks for following today's liveblog.
We will be back tomorrow with all the latest updates on Ukraine.
Ukraine announces more embassies in Africa and a summit with leaders in diplomatic push
Ukraine is to open more embassies in Africa and stage a summit with leaders from the continent, the Ukrainian foreign minister announced on Thursday.
Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement: “We have recently adopted our first African strategy and intensified our political dialogue with many countries on the continent.
"This year, we are going to establish new embassies in different parts of the continent and plan to hold the first Ukraine-Africa Summit. I invite the leaders of your countries to take part in this important event."
He added: “We want to develop a new quality of partnership based on three mutual principles: mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual benefits."
Both Russia and Ukraine are seen to be conducting a diplomatic push on the continent, where Mr Kuleba is currently on a tour.
Mr Kuleba made an appeal from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia on Wednesday to the “African friends” of Ukraine to end their declared neutrality in the war. He was due to visit Rwanda on Thursday.
Finland to send additional 109 million euros of anti-aircraft weaponry and ammunition to Ukraine
Finland is to send additional military equipment to Ukraine, including anti-aircraft weaponry and ammunition at an overall cost of 109 million euros (£94.6m).
The Finnish government said when announcing the aid: “For operational reasons and in order to ensure the safe delivery of assistance, no further details are provided on the exact content, method or timetable of assistance.”
In pictures: Arrivals in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
FSB claims to have detained to Ukrainian 'saboteurs' allegedly plotting to blow up power station pylons in Russia
The Russian FSB security service said that it has detained two people it claimed were Ukrainian "saboteurs" working for Ukrainian foreign intelligence who were allegedly plotting to blow up power pylons of nuclear power stations in Russia.
The FSB claimed that explosives were laid on 11 pylons of Leningrad and Kalinin nuclear power stations, and that the attacks were due to take place on Russia’s Victory Day, May 9.
In a statement released on Thursday, the FSB said: “The plan of the Ukrainian special services was to prompt the shutdown of the nuclear reactors, disrupt the operation of the nuclear power plants and cause serious economic and reputation damage to the Russian Federation.”
These claims could not be independently verified.
'I parked my tank in someone's back garden - and they didn’t mind at all'
When British Challenger 2 tanks rolled into Estonian villages in recent weeks, they were greeted with open arms.
It didn't matter that soldiers were disrupting this usually sleepy town by parking their tanks in residents’ gardens and pilots landing Apache helicopters in makeshift paddocks: anything to deter an invasion by President Putin has been welcomed, Danielle Sheridan reports.
Estonians know all too well what life under Russian occupation is like, having lived through it from 1940 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Families were subjected to mass deportations to Siberia, thousands of people were murdered and a culture and language stunted.
Read more from The Telegraph's defence editor in Estonia here
Ukraine secures release of 106 'hero' soldiers in swap with Russia
Ukraine secured the release of 106 captured soldiers in a prisoner exchange with Russia on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff said.
We are bringing home 106 people.
These are servicemen from the Bakhmut direction - 8 officers and 98 soldiers and sergeants. They've fought for Bakhmut and performed a feat that prevented the enemy from advancing further into our East. Each of them is a hero.
— Andriy Yermak (@AndriyYermak) May 25, 2023
The soldiers, including eight officers, were captured fighting in the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut that Russia says it has captured, but where Kyiv's forces say they still have a small foothold.
"Every one of them is a hero of our state. Many of the ones we are returning from captivity were considered missing. The relatives of these people have gone through a difficult time," said the senior official, Andriy Yermak.
Zelensky responds to 'temporary trade liberalisation' extension from EU
I welcome today's decision of the @EUCouncil to extend temporary trade liberalization for Ukrainian products for another year. The full abolition of duties and quotas has been extended until June 2024. As we move towards the EU, this temporary liberalization should become…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) May 25, 2023
Russia accuses Germany, Sweden and Denmark of 'concealing the tracks' of those who blew up Nord Stream pipelines
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Sweden and Denmark to protest over what it said was the “complete lack of results” in an investigation to identify who blew up the Nord Stream pipeline in September last year.
Several underwater explosions caused the Nord Stream 1 and the Nord Stream 2 pipelines to rupture in September 2022, with the blasts occurring in Sweden and Denmark.
Both countries have said that the explosions were deliberate, but have yet to determine who was behind them.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry accused all three countries of dragging their feet and trying to conceal “the true perpetrators” behind the blasts.
"It has been noted that these countries are not interested in establishing the true circumstances of this sabotage. On the contrary, they are delaying their efforts and trying to conceal the tracks and the true perpetrators of the crime behind which we believe are well-known countries.”
"It is no coincidence that 'leaked' improbable versions (of what happened) are dumped in the media to try to muddy the waters."
EU tariff suspension for imports from Ukraine extended another year
The European Union has agreed to suspend restrictions on imports from Ukraine for a further year, after it warded off an import ban on grain imposed by some EU member states.
The Council of the EU said on Twitter that EU ministers responsible for trade had agreed to an extension at a meeting on Thursday. The European lifted tariffs and other restrictions for Ukraine imports for an initial period of twelve months in June 2022.
Poland and Hungary banned some Ukraine imports in April, following complaints from farming groups about the suspension of all duties.
In pictures: Ukrainian servicemen in Bakhmut
Japan scrambled fighter jets after Russian 'intelligence-gathering' aircraft detected off its coasts
Japan has said that it scrambled fighter jets on Thursday after Russian “intelligence-gathering” aircraft were detected off its coasts along the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan.
Japan’s Joint staff said in a statement on Thursday that one Russian aircraft travelled from the north of the country down along part of its west coast, while another took a similar route along the opposite coast and returned the same way.
The incident comes days after Japan hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the G7 in Hiroshima. There was no further information provided about the incident.
Yevgeny Prigozhin's announcement of his mercenaries' withdrawal from Bakhmut
On Thursday morning, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said that the withdrawal of his mercenaries from Bakhmut had begun in a video uploaded to Telegram.
The video showed the Wagner chief walking among the ruins of the city and speaking to fighters.
Mr Prigozhin then gave a brief statement to the camera:
“We are withdrawing units from Bakhmut today. It is now 05:00, 25 May. Until June 1, the main part will be relocated to rear camps. We are handing over (military) positions, ammunition, everything, including dry rations, to the military.”
Ukraine presidential aide: Ukraine had nothing to do with 'strange and pointless' drone attack on Kremlin
Ukraine had nothing to do with a “strange and pointless” drone attack on the Kremlin, a senior adviser to the Ukrainian president has said.
Mykhailo Podolyak issued a statement in response to the New York Times report which said that assessments by US spy agencies showed that a drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month was probably orchestrated by one of Ukraine’s special military or intelligence units.
Mr Podolyak told Reuters that Russia was trying to reduce arms supplies to Kyiv by playing on Western fears of a possible escalation because of alleged Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil.
Russia and Belarus sign deal to formalise deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus
Russia and Belarus have signed a deal which would allow Russia to store tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the step was driven by “an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus,” Russian state news agency TASS reported. Mr Shoigu added that Moscow will retain control over the weapons and any decision on their use.
The deployment of missiles was first announced in March by President Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has said on several occasions since the invasion of Ukraine last year that Russia would be ready to use nuclear weapons if needed to defend its “territorial integrity”.
Wagner fighters remain inside Bakhmut itself but have been replaced by Russian army on outskirts, says Ukraine
Russian army units have replaced Wagner units in the outskirts of Bakhmut, but Wagner fighters remain inside the city itself, Ukraine’s defence minister has said.
Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram on Thursday: “In the Bakhmut direction, the enemy is trying to stop our advance along the flanks with artillery shelling. Now the enemy is pulling up additional units to the flanks for reinforcement.
“In the suburbs of Bakhmut the enemy replaced Wagner units with regular army units. In the city of Bakhmut itself, Wagner fighters remain at the moment”.
Five Swedish diplomats to be expelled from Russia
Russia has said it would expel five Swedish diplomats in what it described as a retaliatory measure for Sweden’s “confrontational course” in relations with Russia.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the move was in response to the expulsion of its five diplomatic staff from Sweden last month, which it called an “openly hostile step”. It accused the country of conducting a "Russophobic campaign".
The Swedish diplomatic mission in St Petersburg is to be closed down, as is the Russian general consulate in Sweden's Gothenburg, by September 1.
Sweden announced its intention to join NATO last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian statement said that ties between the two nations had “reached an unprecedented low”.
Diplomats from other countries, including Germany and Norway, have been expelled from Russia since the beginning of the war.
Pictured: Ukrainian soldier digs defensive trenches near Kostyantynivka, Donetsk region
China envoy to meet Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday
China's Ukraine envoy Li Hui is expected to hold talks with Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on Friday, the Russian foreign ministry said.
A statement from the ministry on Thursday said: "On May 26, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin is scheduled to meet with the special representative of the Chinese government for Eurasian Affairs, Li Hui.
"On the same day, Li Hui will be received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov."
Zelensky adviser: Ukrainian counteroffensive not a 'single event'
A senior adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine has said "dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces in different directions have been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow," as he warned that the highly-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive would not be a "single event".
Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter on Thursday: "Intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counteroffensive."
Once again about the #counteroffensive. Without further questions.
1. This is not a "single event" that will begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon.
2. These are dozens of different actions to destroy the #Russian occupation forces in…
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) May 25, 2023
Russia said from the start 'Kyiv regime' was behind drone 'attack' on Kremlin, says Moscow
The spokesman for President Vladimir Putin has said Russia said from the start that Ukraine was behind a drone attack on the Kremlin at the start of May, following a New York Times report which said US spy agencies assessed the attack was probably orchestrated by one of Ukraine's special military or intelligence units (see post below at 08.50).
Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday: “We immediately said that the Kyiv regime was behind this. In the end, it doesn’t make much difference which of the units of the Kyiv regime is behind it."
Latest MoD update
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 25 May 2023.
Find out more about Defence Intelligence's use of language: https://t.co/QJ9i0Ncboj
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/fbuhQPzOYj
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) May 25, 2023
Ukraine was probably behind Kremlin drone attack, say US intelligence agencies
A drone attack on the Kremlin this month was probably orchestrated by one of Ukraine’s special military or intelligence units, US spy agencies' assessments show, the New York Times reported.
The assessment, based on intercepted Russian and Ukrainian communications, said that Ukrainian officials said they believed their country was responsible for the attack, with Russian communications indicating that it was not some sort of false-flag operation.
Moscow accused Ukraine of trying to kill Russian President Vladimir Putin, and President Volodymyr Zelensky promptly denied any Ukrainian involvement.
US officials said they do not believe Mr Zelensky signs off on all covert operations, the New York Times reported, and quoted the officials saying that it is unclear to what extent the president is aware of such operations in advance.
In pictures: War in Ukraine
Reports of fire at Russia Ministry of Defence building in Moscow
Russian state news agencies reported that a fire broke out in the Russian Ministry of Defence building in central Moscow on Wednesday evening, before reporting that emergency services denied the fire.
State news agency TASS reported on Thursday evening that a source from the emergency services had said that a fire broke out “on a balcony at the Ministry of Defense building on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya” and that emergency services were working at the scene.
TASS later reported that the Ministry of Emergency Situations had said that no fire was discovered at the defence ministry building.
Officials said: “The fact of the fire has not been confirmed, since no fire was detected upon the arrival of the fire departments. There was also no information on any victims.”
Footage on social media appeared to show smoke billowing near the building.
Unknown smoke near the Defense Ministry building in Moscow
Earlier, Russian media reported a fire on a balcony at the Defense Ministry building. However, the Ministry of Emergency Situations later stated that there was no fire in the ministry building.
The cause of the unknown… pic.twitter.com/Sw9nrOiLVQ
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) May 24, 2023
Several drones downed across Crimea, claims regional governor
The Crimean city of Sevastopol was targeted in an overnight drone attack, Russian-installed officials have claimed.
The Moscow-backed city governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev, wrote on Telegram on Thursday morning that the Black Sea Fleet shot down two UAVs, and several others were jammed and downed.
The Russian-installed governor of the region claimed that six drones in total were launched across the annexed region of Crimea overnight.
Sergei Aksyonov wrote on Telegram on Thursday morning: “"During the past night, six drones were shot down or blocked ... in different parts of Crimea.” He said that there had been no casualties from the alleged attack.