A Word From the Wagner Group

Sources are reporting to The Hill that Ukrainian officials may possibly be forced to exit the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the administrative center of Bakhmut Raion in Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces and Wagner Group mercenaries have been pounding the city with artillery in recent days. Today, Russia is one step closer to what most would call a major victory than it has been in over half a year of combat.

In the video below, courtesy of YouTube and The Telegraph, we see Yevgeny Prigozhin, Chief of the Wagner Group, address Ukrainian President Zelensky personally, telling him they have the city surrounded and there is only one road left that can be used to leave town. The camera then cuts to what appear to be Ukrainian soldiers, one younger and one older, who appeal directly to President Zelensky to “let them go.” 

Recent reports from Reuters tell of “intense Russian shelling” of roadways leading west from Bakhmut. This is blocking access of Ukrainian forces to the city. The nearby town of Khromove saw damage to a bridge that was used to bring supplies to and from the Bakhmut region. Ukrainian soldiers are hard at work repairing roadways as quickly as possible. Still, at this time, it is unknown if their progress will be able to outpace Russia’s rate of destruction. Ukrainian forces have also reportedly moved to the west of the city, where they are digging trenches to be used as defensive fighting positions.


Graphic courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project

The Ukrainian Perspective

The Kyiv Post, which calls itself “Ukraine’s Global Voice,” does an excellent job of providing an insider Ukrainian view of the ongoing war. To paraphrase, they are reporting that the conditions in Bakhmut are challenging, but they are killing hundreds of enemy troops every day in their defense of the city. Olexiy Danilov, National Security and Defense Council Secretary for Ukraine, tells the Post,

“Yes, the situation there is difficult, but keep in mind that every day our men and women dispatch hundreds [of Russian soldiers] where they belong, given that they came here to kill us. Now we are killing them.” 

Ukrainian officials are quick to remind us of a story culled from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) that explains how Russia lost 130 tanks and other armored vehicles recently in a major battle in Vuhledar, located in the Donetsk region. The report highlights how the Russians are not learning from past tactical mistakes. In Vuhledar, they made the same fatal error that cost them scores of tanks earlier in the war. They moved their armor toward the city in columns. Recognizing this tactic, Ukrainian leaders waited at a distance until the Russian tanks were in range, then ambushed them with a combination of mines, artillery, and anti-tank missiles.

Below we can see the fate of a few of the vehicles.

A Symbolic Battle

Regardless of how many casualties the Russians are taking at Bakhmut, the Ukrainians are being squeezed out rather quickly. Ukrainian forces maintain their pledge to defend what they call “fortress Bakhmut” but, as mentioned earlier, many are busy building defensive positions outside the city in hopes of preventing even more land from being taken. Today, the importance of Bakhmut, which had a population of a little over 70,000 before the war, is more symbolic than tactical. Putin has to show something for the hundreds of thousands of troops killed or wounded during his year-long “special military operation.” 

Representatives from Kyiv have been forced to concede that it has become increasingly difficult to impede Russian progress. In recent weeks, many smaller villages in the Bkhmut region have fallen to Russian advances.

Another Point of View

One could look at the situation in Bkhmut and paint a grim picture. They could imagine the Russians have picked up momentum that could build up to a devastating spring offensive. That, however, is not how I see the situation. No, I see them as likely sacrificing the ruins of Bkhmut and making the Russians pay an exorbitant price in blood and resources for essentially nothing. The town is no great prize. There are no major industries there and no vast amounts of natural resources. Sure, they might have “won,” but at what cost?

I bet the Ukrainians are cleverly biding their time, waiting for new fighting vehicles from their western allies to arrive. They could use these new weapons systems, including a number of newer main battle tanks, to pound beleaguered Russian troops into submission in hopes that they would begin the long journey home to Moscow, leaving Ukraine to rebuild.