Russia has rejected suggestions of a broader Ukrainian advance on the war’s eastern front, moving to quell growing panic over a long-awaited counteroffensive.

Kiev forces appear to have pushed back Moscow troops in some areas around Bakhmut this week, claiming their first significant advances in months. While the advance described by commanders on both sides was modest, it raised new questions about the Kremlin’s hopes of a token victory in the city and fueled broader fears among Russian observers about military positions in the region.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a late night comment that the statements «circulated by individual Telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ that took place in various parts of the front line do not correspond to reality.»

The general situation in the area of ​​what Russia calls its «special military operation» in Ukraine «is under control,» the ministry added.

The reassuring words came after several influential Russian military correspondents and bloggers raised the alarm, suggesting that the forces around Bakhmut may now be at risk of being encircled and that a larger Ukrainian counteroffensive may even have begun after months of anticipation. and preparation.

Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who first spoke furiously about fleeing Russian military units around Bakhmut earlier this week, asked Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday to come and assess the situation for himself.

For its part, kyiv confirmed the advances of its army on the outskirts of Bakhmut, but seemed to reject the idea that it had launched a major push to recapture the occupied lands.

It was another diversion for Russia’s embattled Defense Ministry after days of public attacks by Prigozhin highlighted growing infighting over the battle, which has become the focal point of the war in a brutal fight that has exhausted both sides. .

The ministry appeared to be responding not to Ukraine but to Russian military bloggers who flooded social media with alarm posts Thursday night speaking in frantic tones about Ukraine’s advances and signs that the counteroffensive had already begun.

«The kyiv regime began the implementation of an operation to encircle our forces in the direction of Artyomovsk,» wrote Evgeny Poddubny, one of the most influential military reporters and bloggers, referring to Russia’s alternate name for Bakhmut.

Poddubny also reported that the Ukrainians made a breakthrough near Soledar, another key city in the eastern Donbas region, just northeast of Bakhmut.

“Suppose the enemy counteroffensive has started,” Poddubny added.

Another influential war reporter and blogger, Alexander Kots, even suggested that Ukrainian tanks were heading towards the Russian border around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“That is, kyiv, in parallel with the start of offensive operations on the flanks of Artyomovsk, decided to aggravate the situation on the northern front,” Kots wrote on Telegram. «One can only guess at the targets of the maneuver.»

NBC News has not verified the claims.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Friday that the country’s military had retaken about «2 kilometers» (1.2 miles) in the direction of Bakhmut.

Kyiv continues on the defensive, but this does not rule out occasional counterattacks and active actions, he said, apparently rejecting the idea that the gains around Bakhmut were part of the anticipated counteroffensive. “Actually, this situation in the east has been going on for several months,” Maliar wrote on Telegram. «That’s it! Nothing else is wrong.»

After meeting with his military commanders on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces «stopped the enemy» and «even pushed him back in some directions.»

Ukraine Russia War Bakhmut
Smoke billows from buildings in the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut on April 26, 2023. Libkos/AP

Zelenskyy said in an interview published on Thursday that Ukraine needed more time to launch the big counter-offensive and was still waiting for the delivery of military aid from the allies, even as Britain sent in new long-range missiles that would allow Kiev to strike deeper behind. from the Russian lines.

But Prigozhin, whose Wagner fighters have led the main assault on Bakhmut, said Ukraine’s counteroffensive was, in fact, in full swing.

In a statement to Shoigu on Friday, Prighozin wrote that Wagner still controls 95% of Bakhmut, but because of Russia’s regular army on his flanks, «the enemy undertook a series of successful counterattacks.» Earlier this week, Prighozin claimed that one of the military brigades abandoned its positions, giving up three square kilometers of territory where his forces lost around 500 men. “Our army is on the run,” Prighozin claimed, just as Moscow celebrated its revered Victory Day.

Prighozin’s stab at Shoigu on Friday is another twist in his ongoing public spat with Russia’s military top brass, after he threatened to abandon the battle for Bakmut after accusing them of not providing their fighters with enough ammunition.

In a sarcasm-laden post, he called on Shoigu to use his «many years of experience in combat operations», of which the minister has none as he is not a career soldier, to properly assess the situation in Bakhmut.

«Prigozhin and the [ministry of defense]The responses from are a reflection of the growing panic in the Russian information space over speculation about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives and indicate increased concern between Wagner and the Russians. [ministry of defense] leadership, as well as reflect the Kremlin’s guidance to avoid downplaying Ukraine’s successes,» the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said in its daily evaluation Thursday.