Captain Viktor Tregubov is a political activist and journalist who has been serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) since 2014.
He spoke exclusively to Kyiv Post about Russia’s strategy in the battle for Bakhmut in Donbas and the latest developments on the front.
Do you think Russia is planning a spring offensive?
At the moment, the Russians are concentrating all their forces on Bakhmut, piling pressure on with all the resources they have at their disposal, and there is a huge number of people provided by Russian prisons, from which the Wagner [mercenary] group is recruiting.
Wagner’s leadership has a strong desire to show that they are the most capable in the Russian army and, as a result, the main direction of the Russian attack is concentrated in Bakhmut.
There is no information on whether the Russians will attack in other directions. There was information about a Russian offensive on the front in Zaporizhzhia Region, but that has not been confirmed.
Information about an [imminent] offensive from Belarusian territory is also unconfirmed, although people are constantly frightened by this news in media outlets.
According to Ukrainian military intelligence, there are no strike groups of Russian troops in place that are large enough to launch an offensive from Belarus.
American experts advise us to leave Bakhmut and concentrate on preparing new forces for a counteroffensive in a few months time. I don't think our command will do that.
Does Russia have sufficient forces to capture Bakhmut?
I hope not. It has been tough there for a long time now, but our military doesn't want to leave Bakhmut.
It depends on whether the Russians cut off the supply routes - the roads leading to Bakhmut. If the Russians manage to take control of these roads, then Ukrainian forces will be forced to retreat, just like they did in the situation with Mariupol.
Of course, Bakhmut is smaller, but the situation will be similar, and we will have to retreat.
Until that happens, there is a "meat grinder" present in Bakhmut, and it’s harder for the Russians there because they are attacking. It is mainly Wagner private military company (PMC) fighters who are taking part in this offensive.
These fighters are not regarded as losses for the Russian army, especially if they are prisoners.
As long as the Russian command doesn't run out of prisoners to throw into battle, losses in Bakhmut are not a problem for Russia.
What are the tactics being used by the Russians?
Only Wagner PMC fighters are taking part in the offensive. They push prisoners forward and try to deplete our defense forces so that we run out of ammunition and they can see our firing positions.
The Russians used the same tactic in Mariupol, but instead of prisoners, they used people mobilized from the so-called DPR and LPR [Russian-run enclaves]. When they are killed on the battlefield, the Russians see where the shelling is coming from and can, for example, attack our firing points.
Maybe they ran out of people mobilized from the DPR and LPR and replaced them with prisoners, but this is a tactic we call "meat waves".
It is interesting that Russian artillery is quiet - earlier on Russian attacks used artillery in the main, but now they must have run out of shells, or maybe it is a result of the conflict between those who run Wagner PMC and the Russian army command. Instead of "artillery waves", they are launching "meat waves".
Is the Wagner PMC using "meat wave" tactics?
Yes, there is a small distance, about a kilometer, between the urban area and where the enemy is location.
When there is no need to bring ammunition from far away, you can even walk, so the tactic of "meat waves" on this part of the frontline is justified.
The Russians will not be able to scale up and repeat this tactic over longer distances because our artillery will start working effectively on their positions and communications.
According to Russian sources, the man who owns Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, came to motivate fighting prisoners in Bakhmut. Is this true?
Yes, and on more than one occasion. He’s constantly visiting the front. It's a PR strategy. He is trying to build a reputation as the only competent person in the Russian power bloc, so it is very important for Prigozhin.
How could events develop on the front? What are the scenarios?
The idea of the Russians surrounding Bakhmut to force our defense forces to retreat is a possibility, at least for now.
There is information that Putin gave the order to capture Donetsk Region by Feb. 24, but that is impossible.
After capturing Bakhmut, the Russian army would have to advance a considerable distance and would face problems with communications and supplies.
Also, they will also need to capture Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk Region, and it’s unrealistic to capture these cities quickly.
Is there a possibility that our army could carry out a counteroffensive from another direction?
Yes, we are receiving more and more Western weapons, forming new mechanized brigades, and we also need tanks, which are offensive weapons. We need to prepare reserves to liberate our territories occupied by Russia.
It is a matter of time – just how quickly can put new brigades into action and whether Russia will try to scale up the offensive from other directions, for example, from Belarus. So far, nothing indicates this, but we still need time to train our servicemen.
Does the weather have an impact on the situation, as it is currently unseasonably warm in Ukraine?
Yes, it does, because it is very inconvenient to advance in mud, unless we are talking about an offensive in an urban environment. If we are talking about a large-scale operation involving mechanized units, it is difficult to advance in mud, so we have to wait for the ground to either freeze or dry.
To what extent is the availability of tanks key to any counteroffensive?
Yes, the tanks are important, but they are not the only thing we need. Ideally, we need aircraft to carry out strikes, or if there is no air superiority, at least powerful air defense to prevent the enemy from hitting troops on the offensive, so it's a complex issue. Still, in overall terms, we very much need tanks in our confrontation with the Russian Federation.
According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia is planning to announce the next wave of mobilization. Will this help them to organize an offensive?
I don’t think mobilization will help. The question is: how many Russians want to go to war? How many will be able to be driven to the front, and how they will be armed and trained?
At the peak of the invasion, Russia effectively kept about 100,000 -150,000 servicemen in Ukraine, and this is not the figure of 500,000 they are talking about now.
There is a certain logistical capacity. They might get the numbers of people, but it will be difficult to provide them with supplies.
Of course, if they’re going to throw these forces into "meat waves" in Bakhmut, then it makes sense. However, it will not help the Russians to conduct an offensive in Zaporizhzhia Region or to recapture Kherson.
This planned mobilization is, in my opinion, more about showing Russian society that the war in Ukraine is a very serious thing.
Russia has obviously lost in terms of its global strategic plan, so why does it continue to fight?
The Russian leadership can't capitulate because this would severely undermine their power position in Russia, even to the point of physical survival, so they don't want to give up.
Even when our victory is obvious, the Russian command will resist until the problems they have inside the country itself outweigh the consequences of losing the war.
They have brought up a society that wants these territorial gains and the people of Russia are not ready to accept the idea that Russia might lose.
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