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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wagner mercenary group claims to control part of Bakhmut

A Ukrainian position damaged by a Russian strike near Bakhmut, Ukraine, March 3, 2023.

By Anatoly Kurmanaev

The founder of the Russian private military company Wagner claimed Wednesday that his forces had taken the eastern part of Bakhmut and said that seizing the rest of the city would allow the Russian army to accelerate its offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, argued that if Russia’s forces were to take the entire city, where they have been challenged by street-by-street fighting, they would have more favorable, open terrain to advance.

“The world has not yet met a well-prepared Russian army, their units possessing all of the possible modern equipment that have not yet joined the battle,” Prigozhin said Wednesday in a video message, speaking next to what a New York Times analysis identified as a World War II memorial in eastern Bakhmut.

Explosions thundered in the distance.

Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on Prigozhin’s claim. Before an informal meeting of European defense ministers in Stockholm on Thursday focused on supplying Ukraine with more ammunition, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days.” But he said that losing Bakhmut would not be a decisive turn in the war, an assessment that reflected the judgment of Western analysts, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Russia, which has poured equipment and fighters into the area, has been attacking Bakhmut from three directions in a persistent attempt to encircle Ukrainian troops and cut off their supply routes. Moscow, which has faced a series of setbacks on the battlefield, sees taking the city as a key step in its effort to capture the entire eastern Donbas region.

Many Western military analysts have questioned Russia’s ability to significantly accelerate its offensive if the city is captured, saying its forces have been exhausted by the heavy losses suffered in the early stages of the war. On Wednesday, the U.S. director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told a Senate hearing that Russia lacked the ammunition and troops to make major territorial gains this year and could shift to a hold-and-defend strategy.

Ukrainian forces have vowed to continue defending Bakhmut and succeeded in keeping open at least one supply route. In recent days, however, they have destroyed some crossings over the river dividing Bakhmut, leading some analysts to suggest that Ukraine has made a controlled retreat to the western section of the city.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on Tuesday framed his decision to keep fighting in Bakhmut in similar terms to Prigozhin, saying the loss of the city could open Russia’s route toward key cities such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, to the west.

“We understand that after Bakhmut, they could go further,” he told CNN in an interview.

In his video address, Prigozhin called on Zelenskyy to continue sending Ukraine’s “battle-ready units” to defend Bakhmut, repeating his frequent claim that Wagner’s staggering losses in the city are degrading Kyiv’s offensive ability elsewhere.

Ukrainian commanders have justified their costly defense of the city in similar terms, with the head of the country’s eastern group of forces saying Tuesday that Bakhmut would turn Wagner into a spent force.

Prigozhin did not deny that possibility.

“Many things don’t last forever,” he said in the video, recorded in response to a query from The New York Times. “The same could happen to PMC Wagner,” he said, using an abbreviation for the private military company.

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