As Wagner and the Kremlin celebrate the “capture” of Bakhmut, several Russian milbloggers are already raining on their parade, insisting the battle was not worth the cost and has severely weakened Russian forces as they wait for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
What’s the latest situation on the ground?
Still contested – President Zelensky said on Sunday that Bakhmut was “not occupied” by Moscow, while the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, insisted his fighters had taken control of the eastern city “to the last centimeter.”
He also insisted there were no Ukrainian troops there at all. “There is not a single Ukrainian soldier in Bakhmut as we have stopped taking prisoners,” he said in a post on Telegram.
“There are a huge number of corpses of Ukrainian soldiers.”
Prigozhin said Zelensky was either not telling the truth or “like many of our own military leaders, simply does not know what is happening on the ground, this is a possibility.”
Ukraine’s army on Sunday evening said it retained an “insignificant” part of the city and that soldiers were advancing in from the city’s outer limits.
“We continue to advance on the flanks in the suburbs of Bakhmut,” said Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces.
How has the Kremlin framed the developments?
The Russian army released a statement several hours after Prigozhin on Saturday, declaring the “liberation of the city of [Bakhmut]… completed.”
The Kremlin later congratulated both Wagner and the Russian army, who have been at increasing loggerheads during Moscow’s offensive.
“Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate” the city, TASS news agency quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.
Is it a victory for the Kremlin?
As keen as the Kremlin is to declare victory, fighting around the city is far from over.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Sunday evening: “Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy... the enemy has to defend in the part of the city it controls.”
Western analysts back up both accounts – that Wagner fighters are in the city itself, but Ukraine’s forces have taken parts of the surrounding area, meaning Russia will need to reinforce Wagner’s fighters in order to hold the city.
The Institute for the Study of War said on Sunday evening: “The Wagner Group’s likely capture of the last remaining small area of western Bakhmut does not impact ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks north or south of Bakhmut, nor does it impact Ukrainian control over the ground lines of communications (GLOCs) around Bakhmut that exhausted Wagner forces would need to reach in order to conduct further offensive operations.
“Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions.”
On Monday morning, Prigozhin confirmed Russia’s need to send reinforcements, saying his fighters would leave Bakhmut by June 1.
Prigozhin said the mercenaries had set up "defence lines" on the western outskirts of the city before a planned transfer of control to the Russian army.
Referencing his ongoing power struggle with the Kremlin’s military top brass, he added: "If the ministry of defence does not have enough personnel, we have thousands of generals.”
What are the Russian propagandists saying?
Russian State TV is toeing the Kremlin line, even going so far as comparing what has happened in Bakhmut to the fall of Berlin toward the end of World War II.
But in the world of Russian milbloggers who are less beholden to the Kremlin line, a far more pessimistic view of events is being portrayed.
Leading the charge is arch-Russian nationalist and vocal Putin critic Igor Girkin, who has played down the capture of Bakhmut and highlighted the vast amounts of men and materiel that have been expended during the months-long battle.
Girkin notes that ahead of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russian forces in the area are now exhausted.
Girkin says the Bakhmut battle was unnecessary and turned out to be Phyrric (longread). He notes that all Russian forces are now exhausted while trying to achieve at least some sort of victory for propaganda purposes, and Ukraine is now in a position to deal several strikes where… pic.twitter.com/LrahqUsB7v— Dmitri (@wartranslated) May 21, 2023
He wrote: “I thought it would be necessary to calmly and in detail go through this operation once again here too which is now being inflated in every possible way (in order to stick ‘victorious laurels’ on the head of the bald [Prigozhin].
“Why do I think the enemy will attack soon? Precisely because they have the best chance to succeed now.
“The best strike units of the Russian Armed Forces are exhausted from months of fighting. Stocks of ammunition are minimal.”
He also said that if, for example, Ukraine attacked in the Donetsk region, toward Mariupol, they would face troops “that are badly shattered and ‘thinned out’ by redeployment of reserves to Bakhmut.”
In conclusion, he dismissed the efforts to take the city of Bakhmut as “not even approximately worth the effort and money spent on it.”
Is he right?
It’s undeniable that the fight for Bakhmut has taken a huge toll on both sides, particularly Russia. President Biden said on Sunday Russia has suffered more than 100,000 casualties in the fight for the Ukrainian city.
Speaking on Sunday at the G7 summit in Japan, Biden said: “Bakhmut. There’s a discussion about whether or not it’s been lost or whatever.
“Well, the truth of the matter is the Russians have suffered over 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut.
“And that’s hard to make up.”
Is Girkin the only person who thinks Bakhmut wasn’t worth it?
No, according to the ISW, a number of milbloggers have “shifted to more conservative expectations of Russian operations” and have “largely abandoned their previous high expectations that the capture of Bakhmut would lead to a collapse of Ukrainian lines in the area and Russian advances up to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.”
It adds: “Russian milbloggers’ more realistic views about both Russian capabilities in Ukraine and the relevance of the Bakhmut offensive highlight the divergence between two very different segments of the pro-war Russian information space: the more optimistic presentation of the war offered by the Kremlin and the more informed presentation of the war offered by milbloggers.
“These growing differences will likely continue to undermine the Kremlin’s ability to shape the Russian information space.”
Western experts also agree that in the longer term, the battle for Bakhmut will work out in Ukraine’s favor despite the horrific cost.
“What they [Ukrainians] needed to do was to, one, weaken the Russians as much as possible before they do that counteroffensive, and secondly, buy time to get that force ready,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“They calculated – I believe it was the right choice – that in fighting for Bakhmut, they could do both,” he told US media outlet NPR in an interview aired Saturday.
What does the Russian public think?
Predictably, many Russians on social media have swallowed the victory line propagated by the Kremlin. “They are handsome! Glory to great Russia," wrote one person on Telegram.
Another, referring to the Soviet-era name of Bakhmut said: "Today Bakhmut became Artemivsk. Bakhmut fortress has fallen".
Yet others were in a far more pessimistic mood. One wrote: "The current conflict must be ended, and only through peaceful negotiations. The West wants to prolong the conflict, and many emotionally echo its rhetoric without realizing it. Get a grip on yourselves. Stop the aggression."
One went even further, saying: "By wiping off the bloody stain of 'Z,' we will gain freedom for our people. For such losses, both idiots were to the wall to be shot."
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