As Russian offensive strength on Ukraine’s eastern front appeared to be waning, mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group redoubled attacks on the Ukrainian defenders of the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region during the 55th week of the war.
Ukrainian Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi said Russian ground attacks at the front had dropped from a maximum of 100 a day to less than 30 a day over the past week, while there were between two and nine attacks at night. Dmytrashkivskyi believed that the Russian forces had suffered significant manpower and material losses.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, believed Russia’s offensive in the Luhansk region, which borders Donetsk, was dying.
“Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing its peak, if not already reached, although Russia has deployed most elements of at least three divisions on the Svatove-Kreminna line,” the ISW said.
“Russian forces have made only minimal tactical gains along the entire Luhansk Oblast frontline over the past week, and Ukrainian forces have likely recently succeeded in launching counterattacks and retaking territory in the Luhansk Oblast,” it added. institute to it.
The British Ministry of Defense reported in its latest intelligence update that fighting had also slowed down around Vuhledar in the Donetsk region, with the only recent success seen in the battle for Bakhmut.
“Over the past week, Russian attempts to attack the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast have almost certainly slowed down. This follows repeated, extremely costly failed attacks over the past three months… Russia’s only recent tactical success has been in the Bakhmut sector,” the ministry said.
(3/5) In some cases, Ukraine has launched mines over and behind advancing Russian units, causing confusion when Russian vehicles attempted to retreat.
— Ministry of Defense 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 16, 2023
The ISW also believed that Russian forces were not conducting active or successful offensive operations elsewhere in the theater of war. It said that “as the pace of operations slows down along critical sectors of the front, Ukrainian forces are more likely to take back the initiative”.
But in Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region where Russia and Ukraine have invested huge resources, fighting intensified.
On March 10, Russian troops moved into areas of eastern Bakhmut that had been cleared by Ukrainian soldiers when they retreated west of the Bakhmutka River on March 8.
geolocated film material available on social media appeared to show Russian troops herding Ukrainian civilians at gunpoint at a location west of the river.
“Their further fate is unknown,” wrote a Ukrainian military blogger. “The best things they have are backpacks. From 3 to 10 people walk in columns, behind them one (Russian) with a machine gun.”
Ukrainian Eastern Forces spokesman Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty said on March 11 that fighting had intensified in Bakhmut over the past week and that there had been 23 fighting in the city in the past day alone. The next day, Cherevaty said more than 39 fighting took place in Bakhmut. The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces also reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks on Bakhmut.
Wagner Group mercenaries, who have been leading the Russian battle in Bakhmut for months, attempted to encircle the city in February – first from the south and then from the north – in an attempt to cut off supplies to the Ukrainian defenders. But so far they have not succeeded.
Within Bakhmut, however, Ukrainian forces appeared to be in a prolonged tactical retreat.
Russian military bloggers claimed that Wagner Group troops crossed the Bakhmutka River and engaged Ukrainian defenders. Geolocated images posted on March 13 indicated that Russian troops had advanced along Sadova Street in southern Bakhmut.
Another Russian target appeared to be the industrial zone of the city’s AZOM metal processing plant. Images posted on social media on March 10 appeared to show Ukrainian troops destroying Russian ammunition close to the zone.
On March 14, Russian military reporters widely claimed that Wagner Group fighters had captured the “Vostokmash” plant in the northern part of the AZOM complex. Pictures on social media reportedly showed Wagner’s troops in the factory.
If the Russian forces plan to converge on AZOM, Bakhmut could face the kind of endgame that other Ukrainian cities in the east face. In the bitterly fought battles of Mariupol and Severdonetsk, Ukrainian troops made their last stand in industrial complexes whose sturdy construction made them more defensible. However, they were eventually forced to retreat or surrender due to the strength of the Russian firepower.
Wagner to the Russian Defense Ministry
Amid these mounting military successes, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin found himself in a new public dispute with the Russian military establishment over the defense ministry’s apparent reluctance to supply its troops with ammunition. The spat was triggered by a comment by Kremlin-affiliated political scientist Alexei Mukhin, who insinuated that Prigozhin had presidential aspirations in Russia and therefore posed a potential threat to President Vladimir Putin in the 2024 election.
Prigozhin replied that although the Russian Defense Ministry ignored “550 attempts” to obtain ammunition for Wagner, Russian troops had carried 12 to 15 cars full of ammunition from the front lines of Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Avdiivka for use by Wagner fighters in Bakhmut.
The incident suggests that while there is a public relations war going on between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry, which Wagner appears to be trying to undermine, Prigozhin has managed to get himself into the good graces of Russian commanders in Ukraine.
That’s what Wagner’s boss said in response to a military blogger’s question.
“At the beginning of last year, fate (conventional forces) shook a lot and with their eyes extinguished with pain and betrayal, they stayed with us (Wagner). We treated and protected them for almost a year: at first we kept them together, until they got stronger step by step. Now they cover one of our flanks,’ Prigozhin said.
He then openly undermined the Russian defense ministry, described a Russian brigade commander he befriended as “a normal, strong Russian man” and said that “such people should lead the Russian army”.
“We just missed the moment when unprofessional thugs and schemers crushed these humble guys and started pushing them around and humiliating them,” he added.
The confrontation between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense could well undermine the Russian offensive.
The ISW also said “the Wagner offensive itself will not be enough to capture Bakhmut”.
Though the think tank noted that Russia could still deploy forces that seemed underutilized in the region, such as the Russian 2nd Motorized Rifle Division.