By Siobhán O’Grady, Robyn Dixon, Anastacia Galouchka, David L. Stern and Annabelle Timsit
March 6, 2023
The Washington Post
DNIPRO, Ukraine — It takes Ukrainian troops little more than a glance to tell if Russian fighters advancing on their positions near the fiercely embattled city of Bakhmut are seasoned soldiers or recent recruits.
The men enlisted to fight for Russia’s Wagner mercenary force — many of them convicted criminals recruited behind bars and sent to fight in Ukraine in exchange for their freedom — are “dirtier and they don’t have the same military uniforms or flak jackets like regular Russian soldiers,” said Dmytro Vatagin, 48, a Ukrainian soldier stationed in the neighboring village of Ivanivske with the volunteer 24th Battalion.
The mercenary fighters typically move on Ukrainian positions early in the morning, he said, attempting attacks in irregular and unpredictable patterns, seemingly without any clear strategy, which makes them seem “unprepared” for battle.
It is only later in the day that better-trained Russian forces often enter the fray, seeking to make a real advance. “Wagner and the mobilized are being just thrown like meat” toward the front line, Vatagin said.
Still, their fighting style poses a challenge to Ukrainian troops. And the waves and waves of them sent forward have proved exhausting, resulting in staggering casualties on both sides. “It’s easier to fight the Russian army because you understand what they’re going to do and how you’re going to work against them,” Vatagin said in an interview Monday away from the front.
With the Russians still pushing hard from the north, east and south to encircle Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with his top defense and security officials Monday and proclaimed that Kyiv had no intention of surrendering the city, which is nearly destroyed.
Despite reports of complaints from Ukrainian soldiers that they are fighting under desperate and untenable conditions, and military experts insisting that Bakhmut is of little long-term strategic value to Russia, Zelensky’s office issued a statement saying that Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian military commander in chief, and Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of ground forces, who is directing operations in the east, had each endorsed reinforcing and continuing the city’s defense.
Why Russia and Ukraine are fighting over Bakhmut
“Assessing the course of the defense operation, the President asked Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny and Commander of the [eastern group of] troops Oleksandr Syrsky about further actions in the Bakhmut direction,” the statement said. “They spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”
That Zelensky’s office felt compelled to issue the statement highlighted the second-guessing now underway in Ukraine and abroad. Western military analysts have warned that battling to deny Russia a largely symbolic victory may be costing Ukraine too much.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, reported that the meeting expressed support for the continued defense of the city, without ruling out a withdrawal, after Russian claims Sunday that Russia’s Wagner mercenary fighters had captured territory in the eastern and northern parts of the city.
But responding to a follow-up query about Zelensky’s meeting with his top generals and advisers, called the Staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, Danilov said: “In order to avoid various insinuations that affect public sentiment, the opinion of the members of the [staff] regarding the defense operation was made public. We continue to defend our land, regardless of all sides of the assessment of the situation.”
The situation, based on accounts from soldiers in or near Bakhmut, is increasingly difficult.
Fighting is so intense that Vatagin said he and his team have at times searched houses for Russian forces, then engaged in hand-to-hand combat with them, ultimately capturing some combatants as prisoners of war. “Fistfights have been happening,” he said. “Everyone has their own fighting story.”
Vatagin’s team is responsible for maintaining control of the highway that connects Ivanivske to Bakhmut; the road remains vulnerable to Russian artillery attacks but is a key supply route. With Russian forces controlling territory to their north, south and east, the area comes under regular shelling. In the last two days, he said, they have lost eight reconnaissance drones and two of their soldiers were wounded. “We were given the command to hold the road out of Bakhmut to ensure our guys get everything they need, and we will hold that one until they tell us otherwise,” he said.
Some analysts have argued that Ukraine should focus on the more important goal of mounting a major offensive in coming months to drive Russian forces out of occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. Bakhmut, with a prewar population of some 70,000, has been largely reduced to ruins by Russian attacks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin argued Monday that if Ukraine withdrew, it would not alter the broader conflict. “I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin said while on an official visit to Jordan. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”
Michael Kofman, a military analyst at Center for Naval Analyses, who last week visited Bakhmut, tweeted Monday that Ukraine’s “tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal,” by cutting down Russian manpower and ammunition. But Kofman suggested the time had come to think of saving troops and resources for a future offensive, noting in a tweet that “strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and it could impede the success of a more important operation.” “From artillery ammo shortages, increasingly contested lines of communication, and an attritional battle in unfavorable terrain — this fight doesn’t play to Ukraine’s advantages as a force,” Kofman said.
Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, now in its eighth month, has been led by Wagner, which has used the prison recruits as cannon fodder, sent in waves to weaken the Ukrainians’ resistance, or to expose their positions.
Wagner’s more battle-hardened and professional troops, many with years of experience fighting in Syria or Africa, then move in to secure territory. Even so, Russian advances have been extremely slow.
In an interview last month, Syrsky, the ground forces commander, said that Russia has been on the offensive since Jan. 5, with more than 320,000 troops fighting in Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence, with more expected to join the battlefield this spring.
The Russian offensive “just keeps getting stronger, new directions are being added, but the enemy is attacking all this time, using different tactics in different directions,” Syrsky said.
The most effective of those tactics, according to Syrsky, is Wagner’s wave of small assault groups in the battle for Bakhmut. He and other military personnel in the area described small groups of soldiers storming Ukrainian positions. If they fail to advance, another group follows, exhausting the Ukrainians over time. Wagner’s goal might be to advance just 300 to 400 meters (330 to 440 yards) at a time, Syrsky said. “It’s a working tactic,” he said. “It’s based on constant advancement, however slight, and takes absolutely no account of human losses.”
Poland-based military analyst Konrad Musyka of Rochan Consulting, who also traveled to the city last week, tweeted that there were two Wagners: “One is well known with convicts conducting frontal assaults on
Ukrainian lines. The other one is less known, but well-equipped … [a] well-trained force that’s adaptable and flexible.”
Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin has tried to use the Bakhmut battle to bolster his position in Russia and to attack Russia’s military leadership.
In recent days, Prigozhin released a series of aggressive statements attacking top Russian military officials, accusing them of starving his forces of ammunition. “We continue to smash the armed forces of Ukraine near Bakhmut,” Prigozhin said in comments released by his press service Monday, renewing his demand for more ammunition from the Russian Defense Ministry.
Prigozhin, unlike President Vladimir Putin, has made numerous trips to the war zone, including a recent video claiming to be in Bakhmut. But he denied Monday that he has political ambitions, in response to a question after graffiti appeared in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh urging him to run for president. “I have no political ambitions,” he said. “Our task is to fight and protect the interests of the Russian Federation.”
O’Grady and Galouchka reported from Dnipro; Dixon from Riga, Latvia; Stern from Kyiv; and Timsit from London.