A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 17, 2023

How Wagner's Underminng Russian Army Created Ukraine's Bakhmut Opportunity

Neither Wagner nor the Russian army could, alone, win at Bakhmut. But their chronic internecine verbal and sometimes actual warfare made it impossible to win there and has now undermined any chance Russia has of holding, let alone taking it. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

While Wagner measures its gains in city blocks and individual buildings, Ukrainian forces are rolling up Russian troops both north and south of the city and recapturing 20 square kilometers of territory … without even trying much. The danger here is obvious: If the flanks don’t hold, Wagner’s forces in Bakhmut could be fully surrounded. Yet Wagner keeps pushing forward while the flanks crumble.

Today’s Bakhmut is two stories, seemingly independent of each other, and perfectly illustrative of the problems Russia has faced this entire war. 

The first story is that of Wagner Group PMC (private military contractor). They have been pushing toward Bakhmut for the past nine months, the only Russian-aligned group that has made any advances in all of 2023. As of last night, their forces were a few city blocks away from claiming the entire ruins of the city. 

Open image in full window for a closer look. Image by Mark Sumner|Daily Kos

Wagner has continued to gain ground despite CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin’s whining of “shell hunger” and a lack of support from the Russian army. Despite all the threats to retreat, Wagner continues to advance.

The second story is that of the flanks, held by regular Russian army troops, supposedly “elite” VDV airborne troops, random other PMCs, and local Donetsk People’s Republic militia. That story is one of Ukrainian advances. While Wagner measures its gains in city blocks and individual buildings, Ukrainian forces are rolling up Russian troops both north and south of the city and recapturing (according to official sources) 20 square kilometers of territory … without even trying much. 

This map is floating around OSINT twitter. I’m not sure the original source (I’ll credit if I find it):


The red arrows are Wagner’s efforts to take the last tiny corner of Bakhmut. The blue arrows are Ukrainian efforts, the shaded blue areas are recaptured territory, and the shaded green areas are the gray zones between the two armies. The blue area north of Klischiivka is forest that Wagner spent 2 ½ months capturing. Ukraine got it back in one day.

Russia can’t afford to lose the hills just west of Klischiivka.


Notice that those hills slope gradually from the west, then drop steeply on their eastern edge. That makes Ukraine’s approach much easier (and made Wagner’s previous approach from the east much harder). Once Ukraine takes the heights over Klischiivka, Ukraine will have line-of-sight targeting of that town and Andriivka to its south. Take those hills east of Klischiivka, and Opytne is back in play. 

Russia is reportedly throwing reinforcements into the flanks to try and stem the Ukrainian counterattack, which might actually work because there is zero indication that Ukraine is committed to forcing a real breakthrough. These really look like localized counteroffensives that turned into something unexpected, so will Ukraine’s general staff decide to exploit the situation and push for Bakhmut’s encircling? It’s likely a tempting thought. VDV are lightly armored and have been repeatedly bruised up this war. They wouldn’t hold well against a serious armored assault. 

As of now, look at how little Ukraine is throwing into these lines.

Hilariously, Russia’s ministry of defense claimed that “The AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] launched 26 attacks involving more than 1,000 servicemen, up to 40 tanks and other military and special-purpose equipment.” FORTY tanks! I guess that makes it more palatable than admitting they lost months worth of bloody gains to an enterprising squad of go-getter Ukrainians. 

Russian Telegram is freaking out. 

Map widely shared on Russian Telegram

The danger here is obvious: If the flanks don’t hold, Wagner’s forces in Bakhmut could be fully surrounded. Yet Wagner keeps pushing forward while the flanks crumble. It is the craziest thing! And today, Ukraine’s General Staff claimed that VDV airborne forces are now also pushing inside Bakhmut! Wouldn’t it be funny if VDV and Wagner fought each other for the last few blocks, in order to take credit for taking the city? 

After threatening to pull out, why would Prigozhin insist on pushing forward? With just a few city blocks left, Prigozhin may simply want to plant the flag, claim victory, and then retreat for Russian forces (those VDV?) to “hold” the gains, which they’d do as effectively as they’re holding the flanks. He’d declare victory and rub it in the face of his archnemesis Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defense. And when Ukraine retakes the city, Prigozhin can blame Shoigu again. Who knows, the Chechen Kadyrovites might actually show up just in time to get encircled. I’m still betting they never show. 

So why is this is all representative of Russia’s disastrous war effort? 

  • Russia is fielding multiple rival armies and militias, all of them hating each other, working at cross-purposes, and refusing to communicate. 
  • There is no strong central command. Each group has its own agenda. Wagner wants credit for taking Bakhmut, given the sacrifice in lives to get it, and Prigozhin needs to shove a success in Shoigu’s face. Meanwhile, Shoigu isn’t particularly motivated to hold those flanks, because if they fall, Wagner goes bye-bye. And now, apparently Shoigu has sent forces to try and take credit for taking Bakhmut, by closing out those last few city blocks. 
  • The only thing that matters is symbolism, not actual accomplishments. Prigozhin doesn’t care about the problems at the flanks because he has no interest in holding Bakhmut. He himself admitted that “the village of Bakhmut is of no strategic importance for further progress to the west.” He has repeatedly stated that Wagner is an offensive group. He doesn’t do defense. So once he takes those last few remaining blocks, he’ll declare glorious victory, Putin will have something to brag about back home, and they can all point fingers at each other when no one holds the defense.

Without a serious commitment from Ukrainian general staff, there is only so much these local counterattacks can accomplish. Offensive operations are incredibly difficult to sustain logistically, and we don’t even know if Ukraine has committed the manpower to push deeper into those flanks.

But it does show that Russia’s defensive lines could be much easier to breach than expected. All the trenches and defensive earthworks in the world won't do Russia any good if their men run at the first sign of trouble. If they’re running like this at the sight of a handful of charging Ukrainians, imagine what they’ll do if they see a legit combined-arms juggernaut, with dozens of vehicles, charging at them.


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