ome 15,000 Russian millionaires are seeking to emigrate amid “particularly strong skepticism” among their country’s wealthy about Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, British defense chiefs said on Friday.
They claimed the planned exodus was partly down to opposition to the Russian president’s invasion and also because individuals wanted to avoid the heavy sanctions being imposed on Russia by the West.
The Ministry of Defense in London also said that some high-profile officials in Russia had been “sidelined” after Mr Putin’s lightning invasion plan failed and the conflict has turned into a war of attrition, focusing on the eastern Donbas region, with heavy losses on both sides.
In its latest intelligence update, the MoD said: “Scepticism about the war is likely particularly strong amongst Russia’s business elite and oligarch community.
“Migration applications suggest that 15,000 Russian millionaires (in US dollars) are likely already attempting to leave the country.
“Motivations highly likely include both personal opposition to the invasion and an intent to escape the financial impact of the sanctions imposed on Russia. Should this exodus continue, it will likely exacerbate the war’s long-term damage to Russia’s economy.”
The UK defense chiefs are fighting an information battle against the Kremlin, trying to undermine Russian morale and support for the war, so their claims need to be treated with caution.
Mr Putin’s regime, though, is still refusing to even publicly accept that there is a “war” in Ukraine, calling it a “special military operation” and its claims about not killing civilians and Russian forces not committing war crimes fly in the face of numerous reports, footage and photos from the conflict zone.
The MoD also stressed: “Speaking out against the invasion is also being criminalised.
“In Russia, the war has accelerated the state’s long-term trajectory towards authoritarianism.
“In recent weeks, the Duma has started the process to introduce a 20-year sentence for Russians who fight against the Russian Federation.
“Despite the majority of Russians telling pollsters they support the ‘special military operation’, elements of the population both actively and passively demonstrate their opposition.”
It added: “The ‘Freedom for Russia Legion’, recruited from Russians, has almost certainly deployed in combat alongside the Ukrainian military. Some high profile Russian officials have highly likely been side-lined after criticizing the war.”
The UK defense chiefs also highlighted that over the last 24 hours, Russian forces “have likely” continued to attempt to regain momentum on the Popasna axis, from which they “seek to surround the Severodonetsk pocket from the south”.
Russian forces have destroyed all the bridges into the embattled industrial city of Severodonetsk in the eastern Luhansk province.
Ukrainian soldiers, though, were still holding out in the Azot chemical plant in the city where hundreds of civilians are also believed to be sheltering in a network of underground tunnels.
“Every day it becomes more and more difficult because the Russians are pulling more and more weapons into the city,” Severodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said.
Civic chiefs said the evacuation of 568 civilians, including 38 children, sheltering in the bunkers under the chemical factory was impossible due to shelling and heavy fighting.
An air strike on Thursday hit a building sheltering civilians in Lysychansk across the river, killing at least four and wounding seven, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
Ukrainian highlighted the resistance in the city officials under Russian bombardment, as well as new counter-attacks in the south of the country.
But they said battles on both main fronts depended on receiving more aid from the West, especially artillery to counter Russia’s big advantage in firepower.
“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, anti-missile defense systems,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday after talks with his European counterparts.
But he is pleading for more weapons from the West amid reports that between 200 to 500 Ukrainian soldiers are dying a day, with daily casualties reaching 1,000 sometimes once wounded servicemen and women are included.
Air raid sirens had blared as French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Italy’s Mario Draghi visited the Ukrainian capital and the nearby town of Irpin wrecked early in the war.
Following the talks with Mr Zelensky, the leaders signaled that Ukraine should be granted European Union candidate status, a symbolic gesture that would draw Kyiv closer to the economic bloc.
Mr Scholz said Germany had taken in 800,000 Ukrainian refugees and would continue to support Ukraine as long as it needed.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” he said.
Mr Macron said France would step up arms deliveries to Kyiv, while NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels pledged more weapons for Ukraine while making plans to bolster the US-led military alliance’s eastern flank.
But some countries, including Germany and France, have been accused of dragging their feet in providing weapons to Ukraine.
Kyiv has long criticized Mr Scholz over what it regards as Germany’s slow delivery of weapons and reluctance to sever economic ties with Moscow, and was furious this month at Mr Macron for saying in an interview that Russia must not be “humiliated”.
Britain, which has been at the forefront of supplying military support to Ukraine, is sending more heavy weapons
The UK was also on Friday hosting talks on rebuilding key infrastructure in Kyiv.
It will promote collaboration between its companies in infrastructure, energy and transport, and Ukrainian public and private organizations to help repair damaged and destroyed buildings and other infrastructure.
In the south, Ukraine says its forces have been making inroads into Kherson province, which Russia occupied early in its invasion. There has been little independent reporting to confirm battlefield positions in the area.
Mr Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Twitter that he had visited an area about two miles from Russian positions, where dozens of “ghost villages” were depopulated by the combat.
“Our guys on the ground – the mood is fighting. Even with limited resources, we are pushing back the enemy. One thing is missing – long-range weapons. In any case, we will throw them out of the south,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the Dutch intelligence service said it had uncovered an elaborate Russian plot to place a military agent using a false Brazilian identity in the International Criminal Court, which is investigating suspected war crimes committed by Mr Putin’s forces in Ukraine.
“This was a long-term, multi-year GRU operation that cost a lot of time, energy and money,” said Dutch intelligence agency chief Erik Akerboom, using the acronym for Russia’s military intelligence service.
There was no comment on the case from the Russian government or the ICC.