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Latest in Ukraine: Russian Paramilitary Groups in Crimean Peninsula Spark Concern

New developments:

Russia accused Ukrainian militia of using U.S.-made armored vehicles in a cross-border incursion on Monday
In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized Thursday that U.S. is not at war with Russia
JCS Chief Mark Milley said Washington asked Kyiv not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia

The British Defense Ministry said Friday in its daily intelligence update on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that for at least 20 years, Russia has experienced a “proliferation of paramilitary groups” from Russia’s military.

The “paramilitarization” has increased dramatically, the ministry said, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially in the Crimean Peninsula, where many units have been given “some semi-official status as reserve units of the regular army.”

Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of Russian-occupied Crimea, is described as having been “instrumental” in creating these paramilitary groups in the region.

Now, however, Aksyonov is likely eager to distinguish himself by recruiting fighters, but the ministry said he is “likely concerned” about the military’s capacity to defend the peninsula.

“The main element of the Russian garrison, 22nd Army Corps,” the ministry said, “is currently mostly deployed outside the peninsula and has taken heavy casualties.”

‘This is Ukraine’s fight’

On Thursday, U.S. defense leaders were careful to draw the distinction that despite Washington’s continued support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, the United States itself is not at war with Russia.

At a news conference following a virtual meeting of dozens of countries supporting Ukraine militarily, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded to concerns that U.S. military vehicles, reportedly used by a militia in its incursion into Russia on Monday, could be used as a pretext by Moscow to bring the United States directly into the war.

“We are not at war with Russia. This is Ukraine’s fight. Our goal is to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to make sure Ukraine is successful,” Austin said.

The United States has long asked Ukraine not to use U.S. weaponry inside Russian territory, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, said Thursday.

“I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia,” Milley said. “This is a Ukrainian war. It is not a war between the United States and Russia. It’s not a war between NATO and Russia.”

Earlier Thursday, Ukraine said its forces shot down 36 Iranian-made Shahed drones that Russia used to attack areas in western Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces “presumably aimed to attack critical infrastructure and military facilities.”

Russia has repeatedly used aerial attacks, including attacks involving crashing drones into targets to damage infrastructure sites in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on Telegram that it had been an “uneasy night.”

“Continuing to terrorize Ukraine, the enemy used 36 Shaheds. None of them reached their target. Thanks to our air defense forces for the 100% result,” Zelenskyy said.

In Crimea, Aksyonov said Thursday that air defenses had shot down six drones overnight.

He said on Telegram no one had been killed or injured.

Bakhmut fight

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in a video published Thursday that his forces had begun withdrawing from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin said the Russian military was coming in to replace the Wagner forces and that his units would complete their withdrawal by June 1.

The announcement came a day after Prigozhin said the lengthy battle for Bakhmut left 20,000 of his fighters dead.

Prigozhin said about half of those killed were Russian convicts who were promised their freedom from sentences for criminal offenses if they fought in Ukraine for six months. But the mercenaries were often sent to the battle front with scant training and often were killed soon after in fierce combat with better-trained Ukrainian troops.

White House officials said Prigozhin’s casualty estimate was in line with their own and that Russian losses have accelerated. Russia claimed in recent days it has captured Bakhmut, while Ukrainian officials say they have not given up the fight for the city and are trying to surround it.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.