Ukrainian counteroffensive looms as Putin leans on Wagner

Ukrainian forces refused to surrender Bakhmut over Orthodox Easter despite ceding yet more territory to advancing Russian forces during the 60th week of the war.

Kyiv continued to gather war materiel for a counteroffensive, and power shifts in the Russian military suggested that President Vladimir Putin was displeased with his army’s performance during a winter offensive, which failed to capture the remaining areas of Luhansk and Donetsk not under Russian control by March 31.
Ukraine’s military said “bloody battles unprecedented in recent decades” were being fought in the eastern city of Bakhmut, which has been levelled by months of fighting.

Geolocated footage published on Monday suggested Wagner units had advanced in the northwestern part of the city. The Russian Ministry of Defence said it had captured three city blocks in the north, south and central areas of the city.

Colonel Dmytro Zovorotnyuk, who commands a Ukrainian battalion in Bakhmut called the Teronoron Force, said his troops were facing tactics unusual for Russian forces.“The Russians attack mainly in small groups of five to six people who, under the cover of artillery, try to penetrate the battle formations of the Defence Forces of Ukraine and engage in close-range shooting battles,” he said.

This was unlike the broad frontal attacks the Russians attempted in the early months of the war.

Moscow said its paratroopers had succeeded in blockading the embattled city, so Ukrainian forces could not get in or out.

“Airborne troops are … blocking the transfer of Ukrainian army reserves to the city and the possibility of retreat for enemy units,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Both sides claimed the battle was causing greater attrition for the other side.

“During the last two weeks in the Bakhmut area, the enemy lost almost 4,500 ‘Wagnerians’ and servicemen of the regular armed forces of the Russian Federation killed and wounded,” said Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov of the Ukrainian General Staff.

Deputy Defence Minister Hannah Malyar said on Facebook: “Enemy losses in Bakhmut are many times higher. There are days when the difference reaches 10 times.”

Ukraine has estimated about 100 Russian fatalities a day in Bakhmut and about as many wounded. But the head of the Wagner Group mercenary force said Russia had the advantage.

“Bakhmut is extremely beneficial for us,” Yevgeny Prigozhin wrote in a 3,000-word essay. “We grind the Ukrainian army there and restrain their manoeuvres.”

He admitted what Ukraine has argued, that the battle was strategically pointless for Russia.

“The capture of Bakhmut itself will not ensure a short-term victory over Ukraine, the road to the Dnieper [River] or even the capture of Donbas,” he said.

Putin leans on Wagner to win war
Putin appeared to bring Wagner back into the centre of his strategy in Ukraine after his military leadership tried to starve it of ammunition during the winter.

“Wagner forces appear to be receiving reinforcements, ammunition, and political recognition – which is a stark deviation from the Kremlin’s previous efforts to expend Wagner forces and Prigozhin in Bakhmut since at least January 2023,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

“Wagner-affiliated sources announced on April 17 that Wagner is training up to three motorized rifle brigades of mobilized personnel to reinforce Wagner‘s flanks in Bakhmut,” the institute said.

Ukraine’s eastern forces spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty confirmed the collaboration between paratroopers and Wagner mercenaries.

“The main striking force of the enemy remains the mercenaries from the Wagner armed forces group, who are driven to attack under the threat of being shot,” Cherevaty said. “At the same time, due to heavy losses, the leadership of this terrorist company is forced to add regular airborne units of the Russian armed forces to their formations for support, which we are also successfully destroying.”

Prigozhin confirmed this collaboration too.

The European Union last week introduced sanctions against Wagner as a vital part of the Russian war effort.

It said Wagner “spearheaded” the attacks on Soledar, an eastern town that fell on January 12, and in Bakhmut, and “is therefore responsible for supporting materially actions which undermine and threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine”.

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