The Wagner Group‘s offensive in the battle for Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, appears to be nearing culmination, according to an assessment by a U.S.-based think tank.
Last week, the Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington D.C., assessed that fighters hired by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin for his paramilitary outfit appeared to be taking a “tactical pause” in their months-long offensive to capture the city. On Thursday, the think tank said the group appears to be nearing culmination—a military term denoting the point at which a unit is too stretched or exhausted to continue its advance.
Bakhmut, a small industrial city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its full-scale invasion over a year ago. Prigozhin’s fighters had been leading conventional troops in the offensive, but the group now appears to be playing a less prominent role in operations around the city, amid increasing frictions with Russia’s defense ministry.
A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade looks towards a Russian position from a frontline trench on March 05, 2023, outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine. The Wagner Group’s offensive in the battle for Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, appears to be nearing culmination, according to an assessment by a U.S.-based think tank. Getty Images/John Moore
Prigozhin has been ramping up his criticism of Russia’s defense ministry in recent weeks, as the battle for Bakhmut intensifies. He has published several audio clips making a desperate plea for more ammunition for his forces, saying government officials are intentionally withholding the ammunition needed to secure victory in Bakhmut.
The ISW, in its latest assessment of the conflict, said that the relatively slower pace of Russian attacks on and around Bakhmut on March 16, coupled with relatively fewer Russian claims on advances in this area, supports the think tank’s March 15 assessment that the Wagner Group offensive on Bakhmut is likely nearing culmination.
On Wednesday, the think tank observed that Ukrainian military sources have noted a “markedly decreased number of attacks” in and around the city, particularly over the last few days.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin has recently emphasized the toll that a reported lack of ammunition is having on his group’s ability to pursue offensives in the city. Prigozhin said on Wednesday that Wagner has had to expand its encirclement of Bakhmut due to ammunition shortages and heavy fighting.
Last week, Prigozhin published an audio clip on the press service of the catering company Concord, which he owns, suggesting that he has been cut off from Russia’s defense ministry amid their recent spats.
“In order for me to stop asking for ammunition, all special telephones were turned off for me in all offices, in all departments, etc. Another important thing they have done is blocked all passes to all the agencies that have to make decisions.”
The ISW said Wednesday that Wagner’s recent gains north of the industrial city suggest manpower, artillery, and equipment losses will likely constrain its ability to complete a close encirclement of Bakhmut or gain substantial territory in battles for urban areas.
“The capture of Zalizianske and other similarly small towns north of Bakhmut and east of the E40 highway is extremely unlikely to enhance Wagner’s ability to capture Bakhmut itself or make other operationally significant gains,” the report said. “It, therefore, is likely that Wagner’s offensive on Bakhmut is increasingly nearing culmination.”
Clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut have been increasing in ferocity as Moscow seeks to secure its first major battlefield victory since the summer of 2022.
Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces said on Telegram Friday that in the past few days, it eliminated at least one company of Russian troops and destroyed an Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle.
The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, has said that its operation in Bakhmut is key to the stability of the defense of the entire front.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, has also outlined the importance of Bakhmut remaining under Ukrainian control.
He told Newsweek on February 17 that Bakhmut is “a live wall that allows us to prepare our troops for de-occupation”—implying that a successful defense of the city could put the Ukrainians in a position to launch a counteroffensive.
Bakhmut also holds “huge symbolic value” for Russia, Gerashchenko added. “The situation there is the most complicated at the moment, but our defenders stand strong and carry out their combat missions.”
Newsweek has contacted Russia’s foreign ministry by email for comment.
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