Days after declaring victory in Bakhmut, private military company Wagner said on Thursday it was handing the Ukrainian city over to the Russian military, which must now try to hold it without the help of the brutal mercenary force it has become. dependent. .
Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, suggested that the Russian regulars could no longer expect help from the group – at least, not in Bakhmut. In a three-minute video, Mr. Prigozhin is shown visiting what he says are Wagner positions in the city and telling his fighters to hand them over to Russian troops.
“Leave them soap, but take your toothbrushes with you,” he says.
A Wagner withdrawal could open a new phase in the months-long fight for Bakhmut, testing whether the Russian military can hold hard-won ground against Ukrainian forces. who advanced on the outskirts of the city and prepare to launch a wider counter-offensive.
“Now the Russian general staff will have to find enough reserves to fill the resulting vacuum,” said Dmitry Kuznets, military analyst for Meduza, a Russian news site, in response to written questions. “This is in addition to repelling the Ukrainian offensive, which will also require a significant number of reserves.”
Ukraine has acknowledged that despite the firepower it devoted to holding Bakhmut, where tens of thousands of people are believed to have died, Russia now controls almost the entire city. He says his forces are changing direction to make it difficult for Russia to hold Bakhmut or drive deeper into eastern Ukraine.
On Thursday, a Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Ukrainian troops controlled an area just southwest of Bakhmut and were trying to make further gains on the outskirts.
“In the direction of Bakhmut, the enemy is trying to stop our advance on the flanks with artillery fire,” Ms. Maliar said. “Now the enemy is pulling additional units to the flanks to reinforce them.”
Regular Russian army units replaced Wagner’s fighters in the suburb of Bakhmut, she said, while Wagner’s forces remained inside the city.
The repositioning around the city came as Russia and Ukraine engaged in one-on-one drone battles on Thursday.
Ukraine’s military said it shot down dozens of Russian drones targeting targets across the country before dawn, while Russian officials said they foiled a Ukrainian air and sea drone attack targeting the headquarters of the Russian fleet of the Black Sea to Sevastopol, Crimea. .
Even as its forces have reinforced a maze of fortified defensive positions across hundreds of miles of farmland, fields and riverbanks in recent weeks, Moscow has also stepped up aerial bombardment in an attempt to disrupt Ukrainian military preparations for a counteroffensive. , according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.
Ukraine has spent weeks targeting key Russian command and control centers, railways, airfields and other military installations in the occupied territories with the apparent aim of limiting Moscow’s ability to move troops quickly and efficiently and material.
Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Thursday the recent military actions were all part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which he said would not be marked by a “one-off event”.
There are “dozens of different actions,” Mr. Podolyak said in a post on Twitteraimed at destroying the “occupying forces in different directions, which already took place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow”.
“The intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counter-offensive,” he said.
Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukrainian intelligence, said disrupting Russian military movements in Crimea was essential to the Ukrainian campaign. “Their reinforcements and the redeployment of troops, the supply of ammunition and equipment to the occupied territories all pass through Crimea,” he told German newspaper Welt in an interview published on Thursday.
Crimea has enormous symbolic and military value for the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, which seized the peninsula in 2014 and described it as a showpiece of what he sees as the national restoration of Russia.
On Thursday, the Kremlin-installed governor of Crimea said several Ukrainian drone attacks had been foiled across the territory. And the Russian-appointed governor of the Crimean port of Sevastopol said two aerial drones were shot down with small arms and several maritime drones were disabled using electronic warfare tools that jammed their signals.
The claims could not be independently verified.
The capture of Bakhmut gave Moscow a rare and very costly victory, and showed how dependent it had become on the forces of Wagner and their outspoken leader, who was scathingly critical of the Russian military.
For many supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner group, with his harsh discipline and agile decision-making, became a model of what the heavily bureaucratic Russian military should look like.
In recent days, buoyed by the victory in Bakhmut, Mr Prigozhin has become even more outspoken, warning Russian elites that they face the prospect of a popular uprising if they do not put the country on a real war footing .
But despite all the infighting, Wagner and the Russian army are also dependent on each other. While Mr Prigozhin has some of the best assault troops fighting on the Russian side, the Ministry of Defense has much larger stockpiles of weapons – much to the frustration of Mr. Prigozhin.
While Russia’s military leadership might prefer not to rely on Wagner for help, said Kuznets, the military analyst, the lack of sufficient troops in Moscow makes the eventual redeployment of mercenaries to Ukraine “inevitable”.
In Bakhmut on Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin signaled that Wagner’s withdrawal would take several days.
“We’re going to rest and get ready,” he said in the latest video. “And then we will receive a new task.”