Kyiv says its aim in Bakhmut has been to draw Russian forces from elsewhere on the front into the city, to inflict high casualties there and weaken Moscow’s defensive line elsewhere ahead of a planned major counteroffensive.
“Wagner troops climbed into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap,” Oleksander Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, told troops at the Bakhmut front this week.
British defence intelligence said on Saturday that Moscow appeared to be doubling down on the battle around Bakhmut, moving more troops there even though they were in short supply elsewhere. It was highly likely that Russia had deployed up to several battalions of scarce reserves to reinforce the Bakhmut sector, it said on Twitter.
The battle for Bakhmut has revealed a deepening split between Wagner, a mercenary force that has recruited thousands of convicts from Russian prisons, and the regular Russian military. For two weeks, Prigozhin has been issuing daily video and audio messages denouncing Russia’s military leadership, often in expletive-laden rants.
In Saturday’s video he said that because of the “whims” of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, “five times more guys died than they should have”. He thanked President Vladimir Putin “that he gave us this chance and great honour to defend our motherland”.
Moscow has long claimed that capturing Bakhmut would be a stepping stone towards advancing deeper into the Donbas region it claims to have annexed from Ukraine. It has made it the principal target of a massive winter and spring offensive that failed to capture any significant ground elsewhere.
But Prigozhin has acknowledged that Bakhmut, a city of 70,000 people before the war, has little strategic significance, despite its huge symbolic importance because of the scale of losses in Europe’s bloodiest ground battle since World War Two.
The grinding battle is reaching a climax just as Kyiv is preparing its counteroffensive, the next major phase in the war after six months during which it had kept its forces back on the defensive while weathering Russia’s big offensive.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the G7 summit of major industrial powers in Japan on Saturday, winning pledges of support including a signal from Washington that it would now back the training of Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 warplanes. Previously, sending combat aircraft had been a taboo.
For Zelenskyy, who left Ukraine for the first time following the invasion only last December, the summit demonstrated a new-found confidence in travelling the world to make his case in person. On his way to Japan he stopped at an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, just a week after a European tour to Rome, Berlin, Paris and London.
It provided a marked contrast with Putin, who has travelled outside the former Soviet Union only once since ordering the invasion – a day trip to Tehran last July.
Putin’s standing invitation to G7 summits once made it the G8 until he was kicked out after an earlier smaller-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2014. He is now wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for suspected war crimes, and was notably absent at a summit of former Soviet Central Asian states in China this week.