Ukraine is making small gains around Bakhmut, whilst the southern counter-offensive continues at a similarly slow pace.
CNN correspondents on the Eastern front of the Ukrainian war reported that the infamous Wagner group has come back to Bakhmut, although with a different chief. “They came back, they swiftly changed their commanders and returned here,” a Ukrainian soldier told the reporter.
Bakhmut is now a ghost town, after being leveled by the bloodiest and longest battle of the Ukrainian war. Immediately at the frontline against the Russian invasion, the Kremlin’s forces slowly pushed the defenders out, claiming victory last May.
Most of the merit for victory in Bakhmut was attributed to the Wagner group, a mercenary force led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner group was considered the best elite force in the Russian army, with almost a decade of experience in African and Middle Eastern conflicts.
But Prigozhin quickly fell out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor, as progress in Bakhmut became slower and more costly. Prigozhin blamed the Russian establishment for his failures, claiming not enough ammunition and support was provided to his mercenary force.
After the conquest of Bakhmut, Prigozhin withdrew his forces from the wrecked town and pulled back into Russian territory. From there, he launched an attempted coup against Vladimir Putin, failing after a 24-hour drive to Moscow.
Two months after his rebellion, Prigozhin was murdered in a plane crash together with Wagner’s second in command. Everybody thought it was the end of the Wagner group.
Ukraine’s other counter-offensive
Since its conquest, Bakhmut remained in a tenuous position for Russia as an undefended salient with weak flanks. Moreover, Russia did not have the time to set up defensive lines around the city, similar to what they installed in the southern front in the Zaporizhzhye direction.
This made Bakhmut an obvious target for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in spite of its significantly lower strategic value compared to the southern flank. Therefore, since the start of the southern counter-offensive, Ukraine also made some tentative approches against Bakhmut.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces are reporting small gains around the town, weakening the position of the Russian defenders inside. For this reason, Russia is now thought to have sent its elite Wagner forces into Bakhmut again.
After Prigozhin’s coup, the Wagner mercenaries were temporarily relocated to Belarus until the Kremlin decided what to do with them. After all, Russia is fighting a war, and it always needs experienced soldiers.
The Wagner mercenaries, even without its old charismatic leader, know Bakhmut better than any other Russian soldier, and are an obvious choice for its defense.