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Russia redeploying elite airborne forces as originally intended, UK says

A Taifun VDV military vehicle at the International Military-Technical Forum “Army 2022” at Kubinka military training ground in Moscow on Aug. 18, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The redeployment of Russia’s elite airborne forces, the VDV, to the Donbas in eastern and southern Ukraine signals that military commanders are trying to employ them in line with their intended function as an “elite rapid reaction force,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Thursday.

The ministry noted that, over the last two days, heavy fighting has continued both around the town of Soledar in the Donetsk region, and on the approaches to Kremina in the neighboring Luhansk region.

“Since the start of January 2023, Russia has almost certainly allocated elements of the 76th Guards Air Landing Division of the VDV (airborne forces) to reinforce the Kremina front line after assessing the sector was significantly vulnerable,” the ministry noted in its latest intelligence update on Twitter.

“Until November 2022, Russia committed almost the whole of the deployable VDV as long-term, ground-holding troops along the front line in the Kherson area,” it noted.

“Now redeployed to the Donbas and southern Ukraine, commanders are likely attempting to employ VDV more in line with their supposed doctrinal role as a relatively elite rapid reaction force,” it said.

— Holly Ellyatt

‘Fighting continues’ in Soledar, Zelenskyy says, after Russia asserts victory

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again rejected Russia’s claims to have to have encircled and captured the salt-mining town of Soledar in Donetsk, saying fighting continues for the town in eastern Ukraine.

“Now the terrorist state [Ukraine frequently labels Russia in this way] and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar — a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers — is allegedly some kind of Russia’s achievement,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Wednesday.

“But the fighting continues. The Donetsk direction is holding out. And we do everything, without stopping for a single day, to strengthen Ukrainian defense,” he said.

Maxar satellite imagery of bombed out apartment buildings and homes in Soledar, Ukraine.

Maxar | Maxar | Getty Images

There were confusing reports Wednesday as to whether Russian and Wagner Group (a private Russian military company) forces had taken control of the town, after the head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed Tuesday that his force had captured the town.

The Kremlin said Wednesday, however, that reporters should await a statement from the Ministry of Defense on the status of Soledar.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin, recently admitted to creating the Wagner Group, a private military company fighting in Ukraine, in 2014.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Later, the ministry said its elite airborne units, the VDV, had surrounded Soledar from the north and south but that “assault squads” were fighting in the town center. The update from the Russian Ministry of Defense was seen by some as a bid by the Russian military — which has been criticized by Prigozhin — to assert its authority and undermine the Wagner Group leader.

President Vladimir Putin’s military reshuffle on Wednesday, in which he put loyalist Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, in charge of troops fighting in Ukraine and replacing Gen. Sergei Surovikin — who was supported by Prigozhin — has also been seen as part of the power struggle between the military and Prigozhin and his Wagner Group.

— Holly Ellyatt

Putin’s new commander likely to be greeted with ‘extreme displeasure’ by some pro-war Russians

Valery Gerasimov attends a military meeting in Moscow in December 2022, when he was chief of the General Staff. Gerasimov will take direct control of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Sergey Fadeichev | Afp | Getty Images

Vladimir Putin has put the overall head of the Russian military in direct command of the Ukraine war, but the appointment probably will not sit well with some quarters in Russia, according to an intelligence assessment released late Wednesday.

Valery Gerasimov will take direct responsibility for executing the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Wednesday.

Gerasimov had served as chief of the General Staff, or head of Russia’s armed forces. Pro-war elements in Russia widely blame Gerasimov for their military’s inept performance in the war.

The move to put him in charge “is likely to be greeted with extreme displeasure by the Russian ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update.

Gerasimov replaces General Sergei Surovikin, who took operational command of the war only three months ago.

In contrast to Gerasimov, Surovikin has been praised by ultra-nationalists for his “more realistic” approach, the U.K. ministry said. He had previously led Russian forces in Syria and oversaw the brutally indiscriminate bombardment of Aleppo.

Surovikin will now report to Gerasimov.

As deputy commander in Ukraine, Surovikin’s “authority and influence is almost certainly hugely reduced,” the UK ministry said.

— Ted Kemp

U.S. Defense Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley will host Ukraine Defense Contact Group next week

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) gives opening remarks as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) listens during a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon May 23, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia.

Alex Wong | Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley will head to Germany next week for another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

The Ukraine Defense Contact group, a coalition of nearly 50 countries supporting Ukraine’s military needs, has met several times since it was formed in April.

Among the topics to be discussed at Ramstein Air Base will be Ukraine’s desire for main battle tanks and modern fighter jets for its fight against Russia.

“When it comes to the kinds of capabilities that we provide them, we’ll continue to have that conversation with them, with our international allies and our partners, and we’ll take a variety of considerations into account,” Pentagon press secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said announcing the trip.

— Amanda Macias

Top Russian military officer put in charge of Ukraine action

The ruins of the salt mine damaged by Russian shelling in Soledar in the Donetsk region of the Donbas.

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Russia’s top military officer was put in charge of troops fighting in Ukraine, a move that appears to reflect the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with the current leadership and flaws in the military’s performance.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, was named the new commander of the unified group of forces in Ukraine.

The previous commander, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, was demoted to become Gerasimov’s deputy along with two other generals.

The reshuffle, which was formally ordered by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, clearly came on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval, signaling that he still has trust in his top military leaders who have faced broad criticism for the troops’ performance in the conflict.

It also suggests a recognition of flaws in carrying out what Putin called “the special military operation” in Ukraine.

While announcing Gerasimov’s appointment, the Defense Ministry said it was aimed at improving coordination between various forces fighting in Ukraine.

“Raising the level of leadership of the special military operation is linked to the expansion of the scale of the tasks being fulfilled as part of it and the need to organize closer interaction between branches of the military and to increase the quality of supplies and the efficiency of directing groups of forces,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

— Associated Press

White House declines to say if U.S. will equip Ukraine with main battle tanks

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, December 5, 2022.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The White House declined to say whether the U.S. would specifically provide Ukraine with main battle tanks.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a daily briefing that President Joe Biden reaffirmed U.S. support in Kyiv’s fight, adding that Washington “will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

She declined to elaborate on the makeup of additional U.S. security assistance packages.

Last week, Washington announced its largest package since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began nearly a year ago.

The upcoming military aid package, the 29th such tranche, brings U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s fight to about $24.9 billion since the beginning of the Biden administration.

New to this aid package are 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, armored tracked vehicles manufactured by U.S. defense firm BAE Systems. Bradleys are typically equipped with a rotating turret, mounted 25mm gun and TOW anti-tank missiles. The U.S. will provide 500 TOW anti-tank missiles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition for use with the Bradleys.

— Amanda Macias

Russia’s deputy prime minister says it’s had no problems selling oil despite sanctions

G7, the EU and Australia implemented on December 5 a cap on Russian oil prices. Market players have doubts the measure will be effective.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Russian oil producers have had no difficulties in securing export deals despite Western sanctions and price caps, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told a televised online government meeting on Wednesday.

“We’ve been in constant contact with the companies, the contract making for February has been completed, and on the whole, the companies are not saying they have problems as of today,” Novak told the meeting led by President Vladimir Putin.

Russian oil production has so far shown resilience in the face of the sanctions, imposed after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, and of the price caps, introduced by Western countries last month.

Putin last month signed a decree that banned the supply of crude oil and oil products from Feb. 1 for five months to nations that abide by the cap.

Novak said the main problem for Russian oil was a high discount to international benchmarks as well as rising freight costs.

— Reuters

‘Soledar is not under the control’ of Russian forces, Ukrainian official says

A Ukrainian soldier in his position as a tankman as the Russia-Ukraine war continues on the Bakhmut front line in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Jan. 8, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine is continuing to reject Russian claims that its forces have captured the Donetsk town of Soledar.

Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Ukrainian television Wednesday that “Soledar is not under the control of the Russian Federation. Heavy fighting is going on there now,” he said, in comments translated by NBC News.

Cherevatyi claimed Russians had “carried out a special information operation” to promote the claim that Russian forces had already captured Soledar but said “this is not true.”

“The situation there is difficult, but it is under the control of the state leadership of our armed forces. We are working on making management decisions that will allow us to stabilize the situation in the city and cause maximum damage to the enemy with minimal losses from our side,” he added. 

This morning, Ukraine’s operational update said Soledar was among the settlements in Donetsk that were being shelled, while Reuters reported that from the outskirts of the town, plumes of smoke could be seen rising, describing the incoming artillery fires as “relentless.”

CNBC was unable to immediately verify Cherevatyi’s claim. On Tuesday, the head of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, which has been fighting in the area around Soledar and Bakhmut for months, claimed that his fighters had taken “control of the entire territory of Soledar” while urban warfare was continuing.

Capturing Soledar would be a coup for Russia as it seeks to advance further and capture nearby Bakhmut. Ultimately, Russia wants to take full control of Donetsk and the wider Donbas region.

— Holly Ellyatt

Read CNBC’s previous live coverage here:



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