Russia controls Bakhmut, for now, but retaining him will be difficult

Russia controls Bakhmut, for now, but retaining him will be difficult

RIGA, Latvia — Russia now effectively controls Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. But it is unclear whether Moscow’s disjointed forces will be able to hold the decimated city amid a Ukrainian counterattack that has already begun.

For now, Russia appears to be in control of what remains of the city, which was once home to some 70,000 people, although Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, insisted on Tuesday that the Kyiv troops still held small positions on the southwestern edge of Bakhmut and fought Russian forces. on the outskirts.

Either way, Russia’s victory celebration could be brief, military analysts said, with Bakhmut potentially following the fate of Izyum, Lyman, Kherson and other Russian-occupied towns before being recaptured by Ukraine. Moscow’s fighting forces are stretched after months of heavy casualties and torn by internal rivalries.

“Bakhmut’s story is not over yet. There are a lot of Ukrainian forces that are still on the periphery, and Russia’s position in Ukraine is not particularly stable right now,” said Dara Massicot, senior researcher at the Rand Corp. “Right now the situation is that they have it under control. , but it’s not set in stone.

Before and after images of the destroyed Ukrainian town of Bakhmut

The next two to three weeks will be crucial for Moscow’s claim to Bakhmut, Massicot noted, as Russia allocates forces to defend against a widely expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. Holding the city – which has limited strategic importance but is extremely symbolic for both sides – would force Moscow to withdraw reinforcements from previously occupied territories, possibly creating new areas of vulnerability.

“The Russians aren’t sure where the counteroffensive is going to start, and based on where the majority of their forces are, they seem particularly concerned about cutting off Zaporizhzhia and the land bridge,” Massicot said, referring to the Russia land bridge. established earlier in the war to link Crimea, illegally annexed in 2014, to mainland Russia.

“So it will be a balancing act between moving additional resources around Bakhmut and ensuring that their ability to reinforce other areas of the front if the counteroffensive starts in a different place remains intact,” he said. she declared.

Another potential curveball is the withdrawal of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which led the assault on Bakhmut for months but whose founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, announced on Sunday that his soldiers would start withdrawing on Thursday.

“From June 1, not a single Wagner fighter will be at the front until we undergo reorganization, re-equipment and additional training,” Prigozhin said.

Wagner has served as the main assault force near Bakhmut since fighting intensified in the fall, sending waves of poorly trained men – mostly convicts recruited with little or no military experience – to overwhelm the forces Ukrainians. Telegram channels close to Wagner showed that the group awarded its own medals to those who participated in the “Bakhmut meat grinder”.

About 10,000 Wagner fighters, mostly prisoners, have been killed in the Bakhmut region since late last year, with thousands more injured, according to the latest US estimates.

Prigozhin’s claims of withdrawal were met with skepticism by military experts. This is the third time he has pledged to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut – previously threatening to abandon the town if the Russian army does not give its fighters more ammunition – but has yet to give. following.

“The situation has changed because the goal that Prigozhin himself declared – the capture of the city – has been achieved, and no one can blame him for not having achieved it, so there is a chance that they leave,” said Ian Matveev, a Russian military analyst. “But the timing is uncertain – most likely, it will be difficult for the Russian army to find a replacement in such a short time, and Wagner will not leave the positions empty.”

Zelensky says destroyed Bakhmut lives only in our hearts

The Russian units closest to Bakhmut are unlikely to be able to fill Wagner’s frontline role, Massicot said. They are a mix of recently mobilized men and those recruited from the armies of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, which are among the ragtag separatist forces the Kremlin has supported since 2014. These groups have been ill-equipped and poorly trained throughout the war. , and sometimes struggled to maintain defensive positions.

Another option for Moscow would be its airborne forces, which withstood the war better, but committing them to the defense of Bakhmut could result in the loss of experienced troops who could be more useful elsewhere.

The initial claim that Russia had taken control of Bakhmut came from Prigozhin, who preempted an announcement from the Russian Defense Ministry, the latest example of the Wagner leader’s ongoing public battle with the military’s top brass. country.

“The operation called Bakhmut meat grinder started in October in order to allow the battered Russian army to recover,” Prigozhin said on Saturday in a nine-minute video that appeared to have been filmed in the eastern parts of Bakhmut. “Thank you to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who gave us this opportunity and the great honor to protect our homeland.”

The Ministry of Defense had to follow up with a more discreet statement a few hours later. Prigozhin has repeatedly accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, of incompetence and treason – alleging that they intentionally starved Wagner’s forces of ammunition and ” stole” their battlefield victories to claim them.

The Ministry of Defense issued a rare public rebuttal to Prigozhin’s claims about the lack of ammunition, but ignored his bitter and blasphemous personal attacks.

Wagner boss threatens to withdraw from Bakhmut and denounces the Russian army

Privately, Russian military officials debated launching their own PR campaign, but ultimately decided they would stand no chance against Prigozhin’s small but vocal network of news sites and Telegram channels unless that he is forbidden by the Kremlin to express himself.

Along with the Defense Ministry’s official statement on Bakhmut’s capture, a congratulatory message from Putin has mostly refrained from commenting on the course of the war in recent months.

“The Head of State congratulated the assault detachments of Wagner, as well as all the servicemen of the units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, after of the Artemovsk Liberation Operation,” read the post, referring to Bakhmut by his Soviet-era name. “All distinguished will be presented for state awards.”

Putin’s first official acknowledgment of Wagner’s contributions alongside the regular army will only fuel the rivalry between the two forces, experts have predicted.

“I think Putin’s statement is an acknowledgment that both sides played a role here,” Massicot said. “That being said, there is tension between Prigozhin and the (Ministry of Defence) which is still very high. … Both sides are irritated as they have to share a platform with the other for Bakhmut.

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to a largely attritional conflict focused on a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.

One year of separated life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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