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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russia’s Wagner fighters claim advance near Bakhmut


Ukrainian soldiers on Saturday at a position near Bakhmut, Ukraine.

By Shashank Bengali

Russian forces edged closer to Bakhmut on Sunday, claiming to capture a village on the outskirts of the strategic city in eastern Ukraine as they hammered nearby settlements with tank rounds, mortar fire and artillery shells.


The Wagner private military company, whose forces have helped lead the brutal and monthslong Russian campaign to seize Bakhmut, said that its “assault units” had taken the village of Krasna Gora, near the northern edge of the city. The statement was made by the press service of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the group’s founder, and included a video purporting to show Wagner fighters at the entrance to the village.


“This is what we have captured,” one fighter is heard saying as an explosion rings out. They will continue on to the next village, he added. There was no immediate comment from Russia’s Defense Ministry, and neither the claim nor the footage could be independently verified.


Bakhmut has emerged as a focal point of the war and an important prize for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has poured troops into the battle for a city seen as key to his stated goal of seizing the entire area of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas.


The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Sunday that Russian forces, sometimes backed by airstrikes, had shelled Krasna Gora and two dozen other settlements near Bakhmut over the past day, continuing a pattern of intensifying attacks as Moscow begins to mount a renewed offensive in the east. It said Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian attacks on Bakhmut, although Ukrainian soldiers in recent weeks have acknowledged that their hold on the city was slipping.


Capturing Bakhmut would be Russia’s first significant battlefield victory in months after a string of setbacks in the fall. But military analysts say it is not clear that seizing the city would pave the way for further Russian advances in eastern Ukraine. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy losses in the campaign, one of the deadliest of the nearly yearlong war.


Bakhmut, which had a prewar population of about 70,000 people but is now largely ruined, has become a national symbol of Ukrainian resistance. After months of withering bombardment, Russian forces, including both regular troops and Wagner mercenaries, now appear to have surrounded the city on three sides. It remains unclear whether Ukraine will seek to bring in more reinforcements to keep defending the city or decide to stage a tactical retreat.


Moscow has thrown many inexperienced recruits and former convicts recruited by Wagner into the battle, according to U.S. and European officials, who this month assessed that the total number of Russian troops killed or wounded in nearly 12 months of fighting was approaching 200,000.


Britain’s defense intelligence agency said Sunday that over the past two weeks, “Russia has likely suffered its highest rate of casualties since the first week of the invasion of Ukraine.” The assessment was based on Ukrainian estimates of more than 800 Russian soldiers killed or injured daily during the past week, the agency said, figures that it could not verify but believed were “likely accurate.”


“The uptick in Russian casualties is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources across the front,” the agency said.


This was apparent, it added, in the fighting in Bakhmut and around Vuhledar, a town 60 miles to the south, where Russia has deployed thousands of troops in an effort to protect a key supply line from Ukrainian artillery attacks.


Russia’s advance in eastern Ukraine stalled in the summer as Ukrainian forces, backed by new, longer-range weapons from Western allies, dug in around strategic cities and fortified their defenses. But in recent weeks, Moscow’s troops — firing artillery at the highest rate in months and deploying waves upon waves of soldiers at various points on the 140-mile-long front line — have begun to seize the initiative in the east, analysts say, and steadily tightened a claw around Bakhmut.


Last month, Russia captured Soledar, a salt-mining town north of Bakhmut, and drew within firing range of a key Ukrainian supply route to the south, effectively cutting it off.


But Ukrainian military officials and analysts say it is far from clear that Russia can sustain a major offensive. Rivalries between Wagner fighters and regular troops, questions about whether it has enough munitions and the disarray that has plagued its war effort from the beginning all could jeopardize Russia’s attempted push.


At the same time, analysts say that Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s advantage in troop numbers will depend in part on how soon Western nations can deliver newly promised military aid — tanks, armored vehicles and long-range weapons — to the front. About 80 German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks pledged by European allies are not expected to reach Ukraine until the end of March at the earliest.


The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, held a call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, on Saturday and discussed the need for advanced weapons to be “delivered to the battlefield as quickly as possible,” according to a Pentagon summary of the call.


As fighting raged in the east, Russian strikes continued elsewhere in Ukraine on Sunday. In the south, Russian troops fired artillery rounds at the Ukrainian-held town of Nikopol, next to a major nuclear plant occupied by Moscow, the regional governor said. One woman was killed and another injured in the strike, which damaged a water facility, a college and other buildings, the official said.


Russian forces also shelled the regional administration building in the center of Kherson, the battered southern city that Ukraine reclaimed in the fall, according to local authorities. No injuries were reported there.



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