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Ukraine Claims Bakhmut Battle Is Wagner’s ‘Last Stand’ - The New York Times - 07.03.23

Ukrainians say Russia’s Wagner mercenary group is running low on fighters recruited from prisons, used in attacks on Bakhmut, where Ukraine has also endured heavy losses. By Andrew E. Kramer and Anatoly Kurmanaev.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has been forced to use more of its professional recruits in Bakhmut to replace its depleted supply of enlisted prisoners, who are perishing by the thousands in the longest battle of the war, a Ukrainian official said on Tuesday.

The claim suggested that Ukraine sees an opportunity, despite the heavy casualties it has suffered in the eastern city, to exhaust Wagner’s nearly suicidal prisoner assaults, which Ukraine’s commanders regard as one of Russia’s most effective tactics.

“This is their last stand,” Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, told Radio Liberty in an interview, referring to Wagner’s forces in Bakhmut, where Russia and Ukraine’s vicious, monthslong struggle has left thousands of soldiers dead and the city in rubble.

Ukrainian officials have claimed that nearly 30,000 of Wagner’s 50,000 troops have deserted or been killed or wounded, many around Bakhmut. That number could not be independently verified, and Ukraine has not disclosed its own losses in the region. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, claimed on Tuesday that Ukraine had lost more than 11,000 troops in February.

As the fight for Bakhmut appears to be entering a decisive phase, both sides are trying to justify their staggering losses in a minor city of limited strategic value by presenting them as benefiting their cause. Each makes essentially the same claim: that the fighting there is worth the horrific cost because it is wearing down the enemy.

Wagner’s founder, Yegveny V. Prigozhin, has repeatedly said that his group’s triple-digit daily casualty rates are sucking experienced Ukrainian units into what he calls the “Bakhmut meat-grinder,” upsetting their offensive plans elsewhere.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that rather than withdraw from the city, as had been rumored, Ukraine would send reinforcements into Bakhmut, where Ukrainian commanders say the fighting has tied down enormous Russian forces.

The true strategic legacy of the battle will most likely be ultimately written by its victors.

Wagner’s mercenaries have significantly helped Russia edge toward encircling Bakhmut, largely by throwing waves of former inmates toward Ukrainian positions, wearing Kyiv’s forces down at heavy cost. “Almost all of them have been killed” in Bakhmut, Colonel Cherevaty said of the prisoner units.

Some analysts say that if Ukraine can eliminate Russia’s prisoner soldiers in Bakhmut, they will not have to face their attack waves elsewhere. The number of “Russian convict recruits suitable for combat is not limitless,” the Institute for the Study of War, a research group in Washington, said in a communiqué this week. The group echoed Ukraine’s assessment that Wagner units were shifting toward higher-quality special forces because of the high losses suffered by prison recruits.

The State of the War

  • Bakhmut: Ukraine’s top generals want to bolster the defenses of the embattled city, signaling that they would pursue a strategy of bleeding the Russian army in a battle of attrition rather than retreat.

  • Action in the Skies: Against the odds, Ukraine’s helicopter brigades are using aging vehicles to fight a better equipped adversary.

  • Arming the World: As traditional weapons suppliers like the United States face wartime production shortages, South Korea has stepped in to fill the gap by arming Ukraine’s allies — but not Ukraine itself, to try to avoid provoking Russia.

On Monday, Mr. Prigozhin himself appeared to sound an alarm, calling for urgent reinforcements and ammunition to withstand a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive he said could not only relieve Bakhmut’s besieged defenders, but even cut off the Wagner attackers. “Otherwise, we’re all in” trouble, he said, using an expletive in an audio message published on social media.

Mr. Prigozhin has suggested that his growing public feud with Russia’s Defense Ministry last month has cost him access to Russian prisons, where since July he was able to enlist tens of thousands of inmates with a promise of high salaries, social rehabilitation and freedom — if they survive their deployments. He had called the loss of prison recruitment an attempt to “bleed out” Wagner of its “offensive potential.”

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Ukraine Claims Bakhmut Battle Is Wagner’s ‘Last Stand’ - The New York Times - 07.03.23
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Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia; Ekaterina Bodyagina from Berlin; and Alina Lobzina and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.

Andrew E. Kramer is the Times bureau chief in Kyiv. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT

Anatoly Kurmanaev is a foreign correspondent covering Russia’s transformation after its invasion of Ukraine. @akurmanaev

A version of this article appears in print on March 8, 2023, Section A, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: Bakhmut Is Mercenary Group’s ‘Last Stand,’ Ukraine Claims. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Servicemen from the 3rd Brigade mortar unit fire at Russian forces to support Ukrainian infantry near Bakhmut, on Tuesday. Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times.

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