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Russian troops ill-prepared for Ukraine war, says ex-Kremlin mercenary

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© Reuters. Marat Gabidullin, former mercenary of the Wagner Group, poses during an interview with Reuters in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, France May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

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NEUILLY-SUR-SEINE, France (Reuters) -The Russian military’s failure to seize the Ukrainian capital was inevitable because in the preceding years they had never directly faced a powerful enemy, according to a former mercenary with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group who fought alongside the Russian army.

Marat Gabidullin took part in Wagner Group missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Syria and in a previous conflict in Ukraine, before deciding to go public about his experience inside the secretive private military company.

He quit the Wagner group in 2019, but several months before Russia launched the invasion on Feb. 24 Gabidullin, 55, said he received a call from a recruiter who invited him to go back to fighting as a mercenary in Ukraine.

He rejected the offer, because, he said, he did not agree on principle with the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

He also said Russian forces were not up to the job, even though they trumpeted their arsenal of new weapons and their successes in Syria where they helped President Bashar al-Assad defeat an armed rebellion.

“They were caught completely by surprise that the Ukrainian army resisted so fiercely and that they faced an actual army,” Gabidullin said about Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine.

He said people on the Russian side expected to face rag-tag militias when they invaded Ukraine, not well-drilled regular troops.

“I told them: ‘Guys, that’s a mistake’,” said Gabidullin, who is now in France where he is publishing a book about his experiences fighting with the Wagner Group.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not know who Gabidullin was and whether he has ever been a member of private military companies.

“We, the state, the government, the Kremlin can not have anything to do with it,” he said.

The Russian defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

Gabidullin is part of a small but growing cohort of people in Russia with security backgrounds who have supported President Vladimir Putin’s foreign incursions but now say the way the war is being conducted is incompetent.

Igor Girkin, who helped lead a pro-Kremlin armed revolt in eastern Ukraine in 2014, has been critical of the way this campaign is being conducted. Alexei Alexandrov, an architect of the 2014 rebellion, told Reuters in March the invasion was a mistake.

Gabidullin took part in some of the bloodiest Syrian clashes in Deir al-Zor province, in Ghouta and near the ancient city of Palmyra. He was seriously injured in 2016 when a grenade exploded behind his back during a battle in the mountains near Latakia.

Gabidullin spent a week in a coma and three months in a hospital where he had surgeries to remove one of his kidneys and some intestines. Reuters has independently verified he was in the Wagner Group and was in combat in Syria.

Wagner Group fighters have been accused by rights groups and the Ukrainian government of committing war crimes in Syria and eastern Ukraine from 2014 onwards. Gabidullin said he had never been involved in such abuses.

DIFFERENT PROPOSITION

Moscow’s involvement helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in favour of Assad, but Gabidullin said Russia’s military restricted itself mainly to attacks from the air, while relying on Wagner mercenaries and other proxies to do the lion’s share of the fighting on the ground.

The Russian military’s task was easier too. Its opponents — Islamic State and other militias — had no anti-aircraft systems or artillery.

Fighting Ukraine, he said, was a different proposition.

“I’ve seen enough of them in Syria… (The Russian military) didn’t take part in combat directly,” he said in an interview in Paris to promote his book, which will be published by French publishing house Michel Lafon this month.

“The military forces …. when it was needed to learn how to fight, did not learn how to fight for real,” he said.

Wagner Group is an informal entity, with — on paper at least — no offices or staff. The U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union have said the Wagner Group is linked to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin has denied any such links.

Concord Management and Consulting, Prigozhin’s main business, did not respond to a request for comment.

President Vladimir Putin has said private military contractors have the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law. Putin has said the Wagner Group neither represented the Russian state nor was paid by it.

Gabidullin said although he had known the Russian invasion of Ukraine was coming, he did not expect it to be on such a scale.

“I could not even think that Russia will wage a war on Ukraine. How could that be? It’s impossible,” he said.

He said he also did not believe attacking Ukraine, a sovereign state, was justified.

“Its right to be independent has to be respected. I don’t see in the actions of this state any aggression towards Russia.”

“I said: no guys, that’s without me please, you go yourselves. Ukraine for me is a part of the country where I was born and grew up, they are my compatriots,” he said.

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More Ukraine fighters surrender in Mariupol, Russia says

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© Reuters. Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Mariupol, Ukraine May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Al

By Max Hunder

KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) -Moscow said nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Russian-held Mariupol as it shored up a key gain in the south, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.

Ukraine has ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, but the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remains unresolved.

Top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city are still inside the plant, according to the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, quoted by local news agency DNA on Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.

“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

Ukraine confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but did not say how many more were inside.

Russia said on Wednesday an additional 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total number to 959. Its defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said, but gave no details.

Mariupol is the biggest city Russia has captured so far and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the invasion it began on Feb. 24.

Moscow has focussed on the southeast in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalisation, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate approved veteran diplomat Bridget Brink as ambassador to Ukraine, filling a post that has been vacant for three years.

Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.

Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext for invasion.

DONBAS ATTACKS

On the battle front, Russian forces pressed on with their main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the eastern Donbas region which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

Ukraine’s general staff said in a statement on Thursday that Russia’s attacks were focused on the Donetsk region in the Donbas.

Around Slovyansk to the north of Donetsk, Russian forces “suffered significant losses” around the settlement of Velyka Komyshuvakha, it said.

Ukrainian forces shelled a border village in Russia’s western region of Kursk at dawn on Thursday, killing at least one civilian, regional Governor Roman Starovoit said.

Reuters was unable to verify the reports.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian saboteurs had blown up railway tracks ahead of an armoured train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.

“The partisans got it, although they did not blow up the armoured train itself,” he said in a video posted on social media, contradicting an earlier statement from Ukraine’s territorial defence force that the train had been blown up.

Arestovych said the incident showed that the partisan movement was actively disrupting Russian forces.

NATO APPLICATION

Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, a decision made in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and the very kind of expansion that Putin cited as a reason for attacking Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith called for an expedited accession process that could be “done in a couple of months”, but NATO member Turkey said its approval depended on the return of “terrorists”, namely Kurdish militants and Fethullah Gulen followers.

Finland and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War.

Although Russia had threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin said on Monday their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

Russia could, however, cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, Finland’s state-owned energy provider Gasum said.

The European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027.

Meanwhile, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) became the latest big Western company to pull out of Russia, saying its local unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized.

($1 = 0.9550 euros)

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More work to resume in Shanghai’s zero-COVID areas from June

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© Reuters. Women carry boxes of food on a street during lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China, May 18, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song

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SHANGHAI (Reuters) -The COVID-19-hit financial hub of Shanghai will start to allow more businesses in zero-COVID areas to resume normal operations from the beginning of June, a deputy mayor said on Thursday as the city looks forward to the end of lockdown.

Shanghai, fighting China’s biggest ever coronavirus outbreak, has been steadily allowing more businesses to reopen and letting larger numbers of residents leave their homes for the first time in nearly seven weeks.

The city was “striving to achieve a full resumption of work and production as soon as possible”, deputy mayor Zhang Wei told a media briefing.

“The rhythm of work resumption” would be based on the epidemic prevention situation, he said, adding that for the rest of May, many workers would remain in “closed loops”, which often involves staff living at their work places.

Shanghai’s stable energy, water and information infrastructure throughout the outbreak “guarantees that the city’s pulse has the strength to beat after the slowdown, and also supports the continuous recovery of the city’s economy”, he said.

After nearly two months of disruptions, cargo deliveries were gradually returning to normal, Zhang said, with daily container throughput at Shanghai’s ports now at about 90% of levels a year ago.

Pudong Airport cargo throughput had reached 70% of last year’s levels, while freight vehicles entering and leaving the city was back to two thirds.

Yu Fulin, an official with Shanghai’s transportation commission, told the briefing the city would start to restore main cross-district public transport on May 22. The priority would be reopening routes connecting the city’s airports, railway stations and hospitals, he said.

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U.S. Senate confirms Biden nominee to be Ukraine ambassador

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Bridget Brink, nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies at her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate unanimously approved veteran diplomat Bridget Brink on Wednesday to be ambassador to Ukraine, filling a critical post that has been vacant for three years as Washington works to increase support for the government in Kyiv.

Brink was approved by unanimous voice vote.

Both President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats and Republicans had urged Brink’s quick confirmation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Brink unanimously earlier on Wednesday, after holding her confirmation hearing just two weeks after Biden announced the nomination on April 25.

The quick action underscored the desire from both parties to send an ambassador to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as he faces Russia’s invasion. Brink’s Senate confirmation came on the same day that the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv reopened after a three-month closure due to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

The Senate also is expected later this week to approve nearly $40 billion in military and humanitarian support for Kyiv, funding that has already passed the House of Representatives.

A Michigan native who speaks Russian, Brink is currently U.S. ambassador to Slovakia. A diplomat for 25 years, she has worked in Uzbekistan and Georgia as well as in several senior positions across the State Department and White House National Security Council.

Brink was also confirmed by unanimous voice vote in 2019, when former Republican President Donald Trump nominated her for the position in Bratislava.

There has not been a U.S. ambassador in Kyiv since May 2019, when Trump abruptly recalled then U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch later testified as Trump faced impeachment on charges of withholding military aid to put pressure on Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, then seen as Trump’s most likely opponent in the 2020 election.

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