Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group, on Tuesday said his troops had no serious chance of capturing the fortress city of Bakhmut, as Ukrainian assault infantry launched limited counterattacks.
Former personal chef to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin in his personal Telegram channel lashed out at Russian state media and government officials criticizing his troops’ slow – and frequently absent – forward progress in months of fighting in villages and outskirts of the embattled Ukrainian city.
Prigozhin heads the Kremlin-sponsored Wagner Group, a mercenary organization operating in Ukraine and currently tasked with capturing Bakhmut, a top Russia Federation war objective. In early February Wagner Group mercenaries, many of them convicts reportedly recruited by Prigozhin personally, forced Ukrainian troops to evacuate the adjacent town of Soledar.
Subsequent news reports from both sides suggested that Bakhmut would soon be surrounded by Wagner fighters and Ukrainian forces inside would soon be wiped out.
The day of Bakhmut’s fall to Wagner fighters is not coming any time soon and, with the present balance of forces in sector shifting in favor of the Ukrainians, it may not ever, Prigozhin said.
“The conditions for encircling the enemy in the northern regions [around Bakhmut] do not exist. The enemy [the Ukrainian army] is becoming more active in all sectors, and is pulling in more and more new reserves. Every day between 300 to 500 fresh [Ukrainian] fighters enter Bakhmut from all directions. [Ukrainian] artillery fire is intensifying every day,” he said.
Prigozhin in a series of social media posts fired off overnight Feb. 15-16 said his men might, theoretically, be able to capture Bakhmut in "March or April", but only if all Russian forces in sector successfully surrounded the city first and cut off all supply.
"It would be a massive operation," he said. "You have to do it, and everything would depend on what forces, reserves the enemy (Kyiv) would throw in there."
Repeating past complaints his troops' slow battlefield progress are down to poor supply of ammunition and weapons from the regular Russian army high command, Prigozhin said: "It (Bakhmut's capture) would (also) depend on our being supplied properly."
Prigozhin accused Kremlin decision-makers of intending to "bleed out" (starve) the Wagner group of manpower with a recent ban prohibiting the private mercenary company from recruiting volunteers in Russian state prisons.
Prigozhin served nine years in prison in the 1980s following conviction for participating in a gang specializing in robbing apartments.
"The real question (regarding Bakhmut's capture) is, how long is this "bleeding out" process..and this process of destroying Wagner's capacity to conduct attacks, is going to continue," Prigozhin said.
Fighting around Bakhmut since last week has, according to official and social media reports, centered on Wagner Group attempts to break into the city and also to bypass it, with the objective of cutting three key Ukrainian supply roads leading west.
Commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), General Valery Zaluzhny, in a Feb. 14 statement said Ukrainian troops not only have stopped all Wagner Group attempts to cut those roads and enter Bakhmut but, at some locations, launched limited counterattacks and regained lost ground.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Feb.15 the situation near the east town of Bakhmut was the "most difficult" on the front line, but Ukrainian troops were holding back Russia's advances.
"The situation in Bakhmut is the most difficult on the territory of our country," Zelensky told a news conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.
"It's not easy for our soldiers in the east but they don't call it 'fortress Bakhmut' for nothing," he said, adding that Ukrainian forces were "firmly holding" their positions.
Combatants from the AFU’s 3rd Assault Brigade posted reports or images showing Ukrainian soldiers attacking into trenches purportedly held by Russian troops, including in the village of Chasiv Yar, a settlement geographically dominating one of the three supply routes into Bakhmut. One unit member confirmed to Kyiv Post that counterattacks were taking place but declined to say where, citing security.
Other AFU units in the Bakhmut sector, according to open sources – including the 28th Mechanized Brigade, 24th Assault Brigade, the Border Troops Command, the National Guard, and the Belarusian Legion – reported having stopped RF attacks and in some cases substantial Wagner casualties. Kyiv Post was unable to confirm the reports.
A Feb. 14 personal post by an AFU officer and drone operator who goes by the call sign Madyar told followers that the town is fully under AFU control and that no one plans to retreat. Madyar has become a minor Ukrainian internet personality in recent weeks for posting a series of detailed videos of AFU artillery strikes on Russian troops in the Bakhmut sector, which he accompanies with black-humor commentary.
“In the north, not a step back, the AFU is holding the line. In the east and south, long, intense firefights, mortar attacks, and the National Guard and ZSU did not retreat a meter all day,” he said.
Ukrainian military supply shipments were still able to reach Bakhmut, but at times the roads the trucks travel on come under Russian Federation (RF) artillery fire, Madyar said.
Sources loyal to Russia confirmed AFU counterattacks and still-open supply lines to the city. The Donetsk-based information platform Readovka in a Feb. 15 situation estimate said: “To the southwest of Bakhmut the AFU attacked in the vicinity of Ivanivske. They had partial success. The battle for the Konstyantynivka-Bakhmut [supply route] highway is continuing.”
Moscow-based observers, likewise, said Wagner’s assaults on Bakhmut were effectively stymied against tough Ukrainian defenses.
“The AFU is sending in reserves and the advance of the assault groups by the ‘Orchestra’ [Wagner Group] is slow. Our troops will assault Bakhmut but the Ukrainians will cling to it all the more stubbornly, since the RF Ministry of Defense desperately needs to demonstrate at least some result on the ‘glorious anniversary’ of the start of the war,” said Igor Girkin, a former Kremlin operative during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Donbas, as well as an outspoken critic of Prigozhin and the Russian army high command.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in a Feb. 14 situation estimate said the Kremlin was likely to continue assaults in the Bakhmut sector, and might make limited progress, but at the cost of heavy losses and a weakening of combat readiness in RF units elsewhere on the front.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 4 declared Bakhmut a “Fortress City” and said the AFU intends to hold defenses there long term.
Fighters from the pro-Ukraine Sheikh Mansur battalion, an ethnic Chechen unit, published a video on Feb. 13 in which a commander broadcasting from the center of Bakhmut, according to his account, said: “Don’t worry about us, Bakhmut is holding. Inshallah it will hold in the future. You don’t have to worry about Bakhmut, that maybe it’s been surrendered. We are in Bakhmut right now and the war is going on. The situation is difficult but it can’t be otherwise.”
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