Russia’s Wagner Heralds Advance in Bakhmut as Battle Grinds On in Eastern Ukraine

Russia’s Wagner Heralds Advance in Bakhmut as Battle Grinds On in Eastern Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine—The Russian paramilitary organization Wagner announced control of the eastern district of Bakhmut, after Ukrainian defenders withdrew in recent days to positions on the west bank of the river that cuts through the city.

The small town of Bakhmut remains the focal point of Russia’s offensive aimed at seizing more territory in eastern Ukraine. Wagner forces have led the assault on Bakhmut, pinning Ukrainian troops inside the largely destroyed town as they seek to encircle it and cut off its last supply routes.

“Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under Wagner’s control,” the mercenary group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in an audio message on his Telegram channel on Wednesday.

Mr Prigozhin later posted a video message showing him in front of a Second World War monument in eastern Bakhmut, vowing that Wagner’s eventual capture of the town would open up further advances by Russian forces.

Ukrainian troops completed their withdrawal from roughly a third of Bakhmut that lies on the east bank of the river earlier this week, soldiers said.

So far, Ukrainian commanders have not chosen to withdraw from Bakhmut in its entirety, despite the growing number of casualties.

The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said on Wednesday that Russia could take the city soon.

“They have suffered heavy losses, but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may finally fall in the coming days,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters at a meeting of European defense ministers. in Stockholm. The fall of Bakhmut “would not necessarily reflect a turning point in the war. It just underlines that we should not underestimate Russia,” he said, calling for continued support for Ukraine.

The battle for Bakhmut has started since July. In recent weeks, Russian forces have put Ukrainian defenders under increasing pressure by advancing north and south of the city and surrounding it on three sides.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals are facing an ever-worsening dilemma: Should they fight to hold Bakhmut and inflict maximum casualties on Wagner and Russia’s regular troops, or withdraw to avoid encirclement a large Ukrainian force.

In recent weeks, Russia has launched repeated attacks on the eastern Ukrainian city of Vuhledar, where Western and Ukrainian officials say Moscow lost dozens of armored military vehicles and hundreds of troops. WSJ examines videos from the area to understand Russian tactics. Photo: Planet Labs/Ukrainian Notebook

Military analysts have said for months that Bakhmut has more symbolic than strategic importance to Ukraine and Russia. But the sheer number of troops both sides are committing to the battle for the city is creating greater military significance in its own right.

Ukraine has sent reinforcements, including elite troops and newly trained brigades, needed to launch the offensive that the country’s commanders say they are planning against Russian occupation forces this spring. Ukraine does not disclose its casualties, but they are believed to be particularly heavy in Bakhmut, risking undermining the strength of forces available for the next Ukrainian offensive.

Russia’s heavy casualties around Bakhmut include thousands of convicted criminals from Russian prisons, employed by Wagner and thrown against Ukrainian positions.

Ukrainian forces are gambling that, despite their losses, they can destroy enough of Wagner’s manpower and other Russian forces and cripple Russia’s ability to advance further or defend against Ukraine’s plans to retake occupied lands.

On Wednesday, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines described the conflict in Ukraine as a “fierce and difficult war” in which neither side had a decisive advantage. She said Russia was suffering from leadership fatigue, declining troop morale, ammunition shortages and high casualty rates that have frustrated its advances.

“We don’t see the Russian military recovering enough this year to make big territorial gains,” Ms Haines said during a Senate hearing, explaining that Moscow could shift its focus to holding and defending existing occupied territory.

Ms Haines’ office, in its annual global threat assessment also released on Wednesday, raised the possibility that the Kremlin could escalate the conflict rather than concede defeat.

“There is a real potential for Russia’s military failures in the war to damage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic standing and thereby trigger additional escalating actions by Russia in an effort to regain public support,” the report said.

The battle lines moved slightly on Wednesday, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The General Staff said its troops had fought off new Russian offensives both around Bakhmut and elsewhere along the long front line in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine also said its air defenses had shot down two Iranian-made Shahed drones fired from the north by Russia.

Ukraine’s air defenses, bolstered by Western-supplied equipment, have had increasing success in shooting down drones and missiles launched by Russia against the country’s cities and power grid.

Russia’s long-range attacks have grown more frequent as the country appears to have run out of missiles it was using over the winter to target Ukraine’s vital infrastructure. As spring approaches, Ukrainians are breathing a sigh of relief that their electricity, heating and water supplies have survived the Russian missile campaign, for now.

People in the Ukrainian capital Kiev attend the funeral of four fighters. Photo: Roman Pilipey/Getty Images A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of an anti-aircraft machine gun. Photo: aris messinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres visited Kyiv on Wednesday for talks with Mr. Zelensky about the extension of the Black Sea grain agreement, under which Ukraine resumed grain exports last year after Russia initially imposed a naval blockade on its ports.

The wheat export deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, helped ease pressure on global grain markets, but is set to expire on March 18. The agreement of Kiev and Moscow is necessary to renew it.

The head of the UN nuclear agency, Rafael Grossi, expressed his concern on Wednesday about the continuing risks posed by the war to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. UN inspectors have noticed an increase in military activity near the plant, Mr. Grossi said, without saying by whom.

“There is an open discussion about offensives and counter-attacks in the vicinity of the country. My simple question is: Are we waiting for a nuclear emergency before we react,” Mr. Grossi told the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors.

A Ukrainian soldier looks on from an armored personnel carrier near Bakhmut, Ukraine. Photo: Libkos/Associated Press

Email Marcus Walker at [email protected]

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