Bad Battlefield Performance in Ukraine Subjects Russia to Increasing Criticism

Russia’s defense ministry is coming under criticism from “increasingly diverse actors within the Russian system,” according to an intelligence update posted on Twitter on Saturday by Britain’s defense ministry. The growing criticism is a result, the ministry said, of “continued battlefield setbacks for Russia over the last two weeks.”

Critics of Russia’s military performance in Ukraine include “Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Wagner Group private military company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, state-approved TV presenters, pop stars, and an increasingly vocal community of ultra-nationalistic military bloggers.”

The British defense ministry said “criticism remains focused at the military high command, rather than senior political leadership, but it does represent a trend of public voicing of dissent against the Russian establishment which is being at least partly tolerated and which will likely be hard to reverse.”

Russia says a truck explosion on the combination rail and highway bridge connecting Crimea to Russia has destroyed part of the roadbed. The blast also caused seven fuel tankers on a train crossing the bridge to catch fire.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the explosion, but Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted a picture of the damaged bridge with a caption reading “Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled.”

Russia concentrated its attacks in Ukraine on areas it claims to have annexed, including the eastern city Kharkiv and the southern city of Zaporizhzhia.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Telegram that missile strikes hit the center of Kharkiv early Saturday, according to The Associated Press. He said the explosions sparked fires at several buildings, including a medical institution.

The Ukrainian governor of the Zaporizhzhia region said that Russian forces fired more missiles at the regional capital on Friday and used Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones there for the first time.

The death toll from earlier missile strikes on apartment buildings in the city of Zaporizhzhia rose to 14.

In other Moscow-annexed areas, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported its forces had repelled Ukrainian advances near the city of Lyman and had retaken three villages elsewhere in the eastern Donetsk region. The ministry said Russian forces also had prevented Ukrainian troops from advancing on several villages in the Kherson region.

Communication troubles

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have reported outages of their Starlink communication devices on the front line that may have prevented troops from liberating territory held by Russian forces, according to Ukrainian officials and soldiers.

Thousands of Starlink terminals, made by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX, were purchased by the U.S. government and crowdfunded by donors to help Ukrainian troops operate drones, receive vital intelligence updates, and communicate with each other in areas where there are no other secure networks, the Financial Times reported.

Some of the outages led to a “catastrophic” loss of communication in recent weeks, said a senior Ukrainian government official with direct knowledge of the issue. Many outages were reported in the south, around the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, but also along the front line in eastern Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Musk and SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, the Times said. But later, on Twitter, Musk said, “As for what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified.”

Ukrainian offensive

Ukrainian forces have liberated a total of 2,434 square kilometers and 96 settlements in the eastern part of the country in their latest offensive, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address Friday.

Zelenskyy also said that in the last week alone, Kyiv’s forces had taken 776 square kilometers and 29 settlements in the eastern region.

As Ukraine’s forces advanced into areas previously held by Russia, officials reported the discovery of mass graves.

Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram on Friday that workers in Lyman, an eastern town recently recaptured by Ukraine, found a mass grave with an unknown number of victims. He said another burial site had also been found in the town with 200 individual graves.

A report by Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry said Friday that 530 bodies of civilians have been found in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv region in the past month.

Nuclear worries

Fighting near the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has alarmed nuclear energy watchdogs. Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said Saturday’s shelling caused the plant to lose its connection to external power. In a post on Telegram the company said the backup diesel generators have enough fuel for about 10 days.

An accident there could release 10 times the potentially lethal radiation as the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine 36 years ago, Ukrainian Environmental Protection Minister Ruslan Strilets said Friday.

U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi will travel to Russia early next week for talks on setting up a protection zone around the Russian-occupied nuclear power plant.

U.S. President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser in New York on Thursday night that the risk of Armageddon is the highest it has been since the early 1960s as Russian losses in Ukraine prompt Russian officials to discuss the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he told Democratic donors. In October 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were seemingly on the verge of a nuclear conflict after the U.S. deployment of ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy were countered by the Soviet deployment of similar missiles in Cuba.

Following Biden’s comments, the White House said Friday that the U.S. sees no reason to change its nuclear posture and does not have any indication that Russia is imminently preparing to use nuclear weapons.

“He was reinforcing what we have been saying, which is how seriously … we take these threats,” from Russia, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One when asked about Biden’s comments.

EU divide

European Union leaders on Friday agreed to give more financial and military aid to Ukraine, but a full day of talks at a Prague summit did not bring any agreement on whether or how to cap natural gas prices.

EU leaders want to lower natural gas prices before winter sets in, but political discussions on how to go about it are tangled amid differing proposals. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday suggested gas price cap options for the EU leaders to discuss, after France, Italy, Poland and 12 other countries urged Brussels to propose an EU-wide cap to contain inflation.

Other countries are opposed — among them Germany, Europe’s biggest gas buyer, and the Netherlands — and they insist capping prices could cause demand for gas to rise or leave countries struggling to attract supply from global markets.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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