Russia looks to private militia to secure a victory in Eastern Ukraine
By Andrew Higgins and Matthew Mpoke Bigg
After weeks of unexpected battlefield setbacks for Russia, the war in Ukraine on Sunday delivered another surprise: the emergence of a former Russian convict and onetime hot-dog seller as perhaps the Kremlin’s best hope for a small, face-saving military victory.
With occupying Russian forces at peril in the strategic southern city of Kherson, troops with a private military force controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a convicted thief and longtime associate of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, advanced on the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut in the country’s east.
The city, under attack by Russia for months, has little strategic value, but a victory there for Moscow would break its humiliating run of defeats — and give a boost to the political fortunes of Prigozhin, a shadowy businessman who served nine years in a Soviet prison for robbery. Prigozhin used to be mocked as “Putin’s cook” because of his business interests in catering but is now a growing force in Russia’s labyrinthine power politics.
Although steadfastly loyal to Putin in his public statements, Prigozhin has cut an increasingly assertive and independent figure, denouncing military commanders appointed by the Kremlin and, on a recent visit to Russia’s Kursk region, meeting with local business owners about the organization of an ill-defined people’s militia outside the regular military command.
One of the commanders he criticized, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, the head of Russia’s Central Military District, has since left his post, according to the Russian state news media, and been replaced, at least temporarily, by Maj. Gen. Alexander Linkov. The top commanders of the eastern, southern and western military districts have been replaced since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Under fire over military bungling in Ukraine from Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, Russia’s Defense Ministry last month appointed a new overall commander for its forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin.
Britain’s military intelligence agency, in its latest daily update on the war in Ukraine, said Sunday that the “dismissals represent a pattern of blame against senior Russian military commanders for failures to achieve Russian objectives on the battlefield.” The frequent military reshuffling, it added, “is in part likely an attempt to insulate and deflect blame from Russian senior leadership at home.”
While the regular military has often floundered in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s private force, the Wagner Group, has on occasion put up more of a fight, particularly around Bakhmut in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
A correspondent for Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency said Sunday that Wagner troops had seized the village of Ivangrad, which is close to a road on Bakhmut’s southern approach, and were fighting fierce battles in another suburb.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces in the east, Serhii Cherevaty, said Bakhmut was “one of the hottest spots” in the region and where “the enemy is the most aggressive, with the concentration of its maximum forces.” He told a Ukrainian television channel that 30,000 Russian forces were deployed to the assault.
The capture of Bakhmut would not offset Russia’s September rout in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, now largely back under Ukrainian control, or reports of a recent drubbing near a town in Luhansk, another eastern region.
A Russian media outlet, Verstka, reported Saturday that hundreds of Russian soldiers, mostly conscripts dragooned into the military as part of Putin’s recent “partial mobilization” had been killed near the town of Makiivka in Luhansk. The report quoted Aleksey Agafonov, a recently mobilized soldier who survived, as saying his unit had been ordered to dig defensive trenches near Ukrainian positions but given only three shovels and no provisions. When Ukraine started shelling, he said, “the officers immediately ran away,” leaving their untrained men in the open to face fire from Ukrainian artillery, mortars and helicopters.
As Russian forces made some progress in Bakhmut, a more important and possibly decisive battle loomed for the southern port city of Kherson. Russia seized the city, on the west bank of the Dnieper River, at the start of the war and last month declared it part of the Russian Federation. But, warning of an imminent Ukrainian attack, it has since urged civilians to evacuate to the east bank of the river.
Kiril Stremousov, the Moscow-installed deputy head of the occupied Kherson region, said Sunday that Ukraine was moving a large number of tanks and armored vehicles into the area. The evacuation of civilians, he said, was continuing. Russia also accused Ukraine of damaging the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam up the river from Kherson city with American-made HIMAR rockets. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, last month accused Moscow of planning to attack the dam in a “false flag” operation.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Sunday that its forces had attacked a building in Kakhovka but only because it was being used to house “up to 200 enemy soldiers,” adding that “the enemy carefully hides the consequences of this attack.” It also accused Russia of destroying private boats on the banks of the Dnieper, apparently to prevent them from being used by Ukraine should Russian troops retreat from Kherson city to the east side of the river.
Frustrated on the battlefield by motivated and, thanks to Western support, well-armed Ukrainian troops, Russia has turned with increasing fury on civilians, seeking to undermine Ukraine’s morale by pummeling power stations and other infrastructure with drone and missile attacks.
On Sunday in his nightly address, Zelenskyy said: “We also understand that the terrorist state is concentrating forces and means for a possible repetition of mass attacks on our infrastructure. First of all, energy.”
Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, the capital, warned residents Saturday to prepare for the worst. “Let’s be frank, our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die,” he told Ukrainian news outlets. “The future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are.”