KYIV (AP): The owner of Russia’s Wagner Group military company claimed Wednesday that his troops have extended their gains in the key Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut as fierce fighting continues in the war’s longest battle.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said Wagner troops have taken full control of the eastern part of Bakhmut. He claimed that they now control all districts east of the Bakhmutka River that crosses the city in the eastern Donetsk region. The center of Bakhmut is located west of the river.
Neither Russian nor Ukrainian officials commented on Prigozhin’s claim. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank that closely monitors the fighting in Ukraine, said in its latest analysis that “Russian forces have likely captured the eastern part of Bakhmut, east of the Bakhmutka River, following a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut as of March 7.”
The Wagner Group has spearheaded the Russian offensive in Bakhmut that has lasted for six months and reduced the city with a prewar population of more than 70,000 to a smoldering wasteland.
Russian troops have enveloped the city from three sides, leaving only a narrow corridor leading west. The only highway west has been targeted by Russian artillery fire, forcing Ukrainian forces defending the city to rely increasingly on country roads, which are hard to use before the muddy ground dries.
Ukrainian authorities have hailed the defenders of the “fortress Bakhmut,” and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed Monday not to retreat from Bakhmut after chairing a meeting with his top generals.
For the Kremlin, capturing Bakhmut is essential for achieving its stated goal of taking control of the whole of Donetsk, one of the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the seizure of Bakhmut would allow Russia to press its offensive deeper into the region.
In a blustery video statement recorded near a landmark World War II T-34 tank monument from Bakhmut, Prigozhin said that the capture of the city would allow the Russian military to exploit the success and push deeper into the Donbas — the industrial region of eastern Ukraine that Russia claims — to make “the entire world shudder.”
But Western officials have emphasized that even if Ukrainian troops eventually retreat from Bakhmut, its capture will not have strategic significance or change the course of the conflict.
The Ukrainian military has already strengthened defensive lines west of Bakhmut to block the Russian advance, including in the nearby town of Chasiv Yar that sits on a hill a few kilometers west. Further west are Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the heavily fortified Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
The ISW observed that, in terms of the wider war, Russian forces are unlikely to capitalize on the possible capture of Bakhmut where they have relied on small units for urban combat.
“The continuing devolution of Russian force structure towards small assault detachments using simplified tactics, combined with mounting losses among the most effective Russian troops, will likely greatly limit the ability of Russian forces to properly exploit any paths of advance opened by the capture of Bakhmut,” the ISW said.
Russia is also likely short of the mechanized forces it would need to push on from Bakhmut, it added.
As the fighting raged in the east, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in the Ukrainian capital early Wednesday. The U.N. said that he is scheduled to meet with Zelenskyy later in the day “to discuss the continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in all its aspects, as well as other pertinent issues.”
That deal allows Ukraine to export grain from its Black Sea ports and permits Russia to export food and fertilizers.