Ukrainian forces are advancing along parts of the frontline against Russian forces near the war-torn eastern city of Bakhmut.
“Our soldiers are advancing in some areas of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Ukrainian ground forces commander Oleksandr Sirsky said on social media on Saturday.
“The defense operation in the direction of Bakhmut continues”.
Russia admitted on Friday that its forces had fallen back north of the devastated eastern Ukrainian city following a retreat by the head of Russia’s private Wagnerian army, which it called “destruction” rather than “regroupment”.
In its latest bulletin, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had taken control of another district in Bakhmut.
“The units of the Airborne Forces provided support to the assault units and blocked the enemy in the wings,” the message says.
The ministry often uses the term “assault units” to refer to the Wagner private armed group that led the attack on Bakhmut at great cost.
A plane was shot down
Videos posted on Russian social media, meanwhile, show the helicopter apparently crashing over Russia’s Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine.
State news agency TASS, citing an emergency services official, said initial reports indicated the engine caught fire before the crash near Klintsi, 40 km (25 miles) from the border.
However, a video posted on the Russian pro-war Telegram channel Voyenniy Osvedomitel shows the helicopter exploding high in the sky and then falling to earth in flames.
A Russian Su-34 military plane also crashed in Bryansk, TASS reported. It was unclear what brought it down.
Russia has said Ukraine used British-made long-range missiles to target civilian facilities in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, injuring six children.
On Thursday, the United Kingdom became the first country to supply Kiev with long-range cruise missiles that would allow it to strike Russian troops and supply dumps far from the front lines.
“Storm Shadow air-to-air missiles, supplied to the Kiev regime by Great Britain, were used for the strike, despite statements from London that these weapons would not be used against civilian targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
He added that Russia shot down two Ukrainian planes, Su-24 and MiG-29, which fired the missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Rome on Saturday for talks with government officials and Pope Francis.
In April, the Pope announced that the Vatican was involved in a peacekeeping mission to try to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but declined to give further details. Both Moscow and Kiev publicly expressed surprise at his comments at the time.
It will be Zelensky’s first trip to Italy since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
At the beginning of the month, Zelensky met with the leaders of the Nordic countries in Finland. He was also in the Netherlands where, among other things, he spoke at the World Forum.
In Italy, he is due to meet privately with President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before heading to the Vatican. He is also expected to be a guest on a popular Italian TV talk show before leaving for Germany.
Germany’s defense ministry said the country is preparing a new 2.7 billion euro ($2.9 billion) arms package for Ukraine, reportedly the largest since Russia invaded Berlin last year.
Kiev said the massive new weapons package was another sign that Russia was losing its war against Ukraine. “States announce large packages of defense aid to Ukraine,” said Mykhailo Podoliak, Zelensky’s adviser.
That aid showed that Russia “must lose and sit on the bench of historical shame,” he said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba said that he discussed the issue of the next arms deliveries with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I have paid close attention to the importance of providing F-16s to Ukraine and the necessary steps to begin training Ukrainian pilots.”
Zelensky to meet the Pope
It is expected that the meeting with the Pope will be the most significant part of Zelensky’s stay in Italy. He previously met the pontiff at the Vatican in 2020, and the two have had several phone conversations since the war began.
At the beginning of the war, the Pope tried to take a balanced approach, hoping to act as a mediator, but later he strongly condemned Russia’s actions, comparing them to the worst crimes committed against Ukraine during the Soviet years.
Francis met with outgoing Russian ambassador to the Vatican Alexander Avdeev this week, and Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported that the Vatican may have passed the ambassador a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Francis has often repeated calls for peace and has often expressed a desire to act as a mediator between Kiev and Moscow. His proposal has yet to make any headway.
Zelensky and his team are pushing Kiev’s 10-point peace plan and urging world leaders to hold a Global Peace Summit based on the proposals.
It calls for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the cessation of hostilities. Zelensky has repeatedly said that the program is not open for negotiations.