Bakhmut: Wagner’s forces claim to have taken the city in eastern Ukraine. But Kyiv forces could still exact a heavy toll
Seldom in the history of war has so much been said, in the midst of so much death, about a place that mattered so little – but this is the Battle of Bakhmut for you. For the moment.
The head of the Russian mercenary company Wagner said on Saturday that his men had captured the city from Ukraine after “224 days of fighting”. Ukraine has denied that claim – and insisted that Bakhmut not only did not fall, but was flanked by Kyiv forces.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday that Ukrainian forces still controlled some buildings in southwest Bakhmut and that the two sides were still fighting for control of “dominant heights on the flanks” in the north and south of the city. suburb.
For months, Ukrainian commanders in charge of troops on the ground, and the troops themselves, wondered why Russia was prepared to invest so much equipment and spend so many Russian lives trying to capture a city that was not there is no obvious tactic. , not to mention the strategic value.
Wagner, and whoever pays the company’s bills, was lavish with his employees.
Last December, a member of Ukraine’s International Defense Legion, fighting in a group of about a dozen men south of the city, called from the front line.
“It’s amazing,” he told me. “These Wagner guys are coming in waves of, like, 40 at a time. We kill 35 of them. Five get into a trench or a house and then they send another 40 and we shoot about 35 more. We cut them just like grass.
It was assumed that the “musicians”, as pro-Russian groups like to call the mercenaries, were largely prisoners. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the company, likes to call them “recidivists”. These condemned recruits, some of whom faced long sentences, were offered freedom if they survived six months at the front.
Obviously, many did not. Instead, they were thrown into what both sides call the “meat grinder.”
“They attack us all the time. We don’t know why they like Bakhmut so much but we know where they are and we know where to kill them,” a brigade commander said late last year.
During this time, Prigozhin has developed a taste for publicly castigating Russia’s military leadership, its ministers and generals, its bureaucrats and businessmen – everyone but President Vladimir Putin himself. In often bizarre videos, he accused them of starving his men of ammunition. He said that Russian regular troops were incompetent cowards.
How will it be if he returns to Moscow is his problem.
According to the Washington Post, he was also identified by US intelligence documents as having offered to give military secrets to Ukraine in exchange for an easy ride for his men around Bakhmut. Prigozhin denied the report, suggesting it might have been planted by his enemies.
His redeeming grace, for Putin, may lie in being branded the head of a transnational criminal entity by the United States. French lawmakers also approved a motion calling on the French government and the European Union to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization. The British government declined to comment on reports that it would be prepared to do the same.
Russia’s obsession with Bakhmut, combined with the antics of a mercenary leader who publicly declared his men would be killed if they refused to fight, meant the town gained iconic status in the wider war then. that Ukraine is fighting to get rid of Russia. invaders.
So a victory for “Wagner” is a boon for the Kremlin – for now.
But the mercenaries say they want to leave by Thursday. And they are flanked to the north and south by Ukrainian troops.
If they’re the only people left in the rubble of the city, then it’s a free fire zone and they’re in the middle.
Far from a victory, they risk being chopped if Ukraine manages to shake their mouths.
One wonders whether or not that would really worry Putin.