- Ukraine has defended Bakhmut from Russia for months, despite some calls to focus elsewhere.
- The battle has hurt Russian forces, and Wagner Group mercenaries are threatening to pull out.
- If they go through with it, Ukraine’s risky gamble might just pay off, experts say.
Russia’s months-long campaign to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has relied heavily on efforts from the notorious Wagner Group. But Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the paramilitary organization, is now suggesting that his private army of mercenaries may soon be abandoning the fight.
The move could change the course of what has become the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. Some of Ukraine’s Western military backers have pushed for Kyiv to give up on its defense of the war-torn city, arguing it comes at too high a cost and offers too little strategic value. Wagner’s withdrawal, however, suggests that Ukraine’s risky decision to stay may be paying off, Russia experts told Insider.
“I do think the Ukrainians were right to stay and fight,” said Rajan Menon, a nonresident scholar in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.
Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of over 73,000 people and is located in the occupied Donetsk region, has been the focal point for brutal and intense fighting for months amid what continues to be a grinding war of attrition with relatively static front lines.
Wagner Group mercenaries have played a key role in Russia’s campaign to capture Bakhmut, fighting alongside members of Moscow’s regular military, but this campaign has proven to be extremely costly for all involved. Russia-backed forces — which include Wagner — have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has referred to as a “slaughter-fest” for Moscow.
Smoke rises from buildings in this aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 26, 2023.
Throughout the battle for Bakhmut, Western governments have observed clear cracks emerging in the relationship between Wagner and the Moscow, despite the mercenary group’s close Kremlin ties.
“We are seeing indications, including in intelligence, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense are increasing,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said earlier this year, noting that Wagner has become a rival power to Russia’s military.
Prigozhin and his fighters have routinely criticized Russia’s top defense officials over Moscow’s handling of the war and a lack of weaponry and ammunition, what Prigozhin often calls “shell hunger.” But these tensions appeared to boil over this week with the publication of several videos that show Prigozhin railing against the Kremlin’s military leadership.
In one video, the mercenary group leader can be seen standing next to dozens of corpses of Wagner fighters during a screaming- and expletive-filled tirade aimed at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who he blames for the deaths of his fighters. In another video posted just hours later, Prigozhin said he plans to withdraw his fighters from Bakhmut on May 10 because without ammunition, his forces “are doomed to a senseless death.”
Despite the losses, ‘it did make sense to stay there’
Fighting has taken a steep toll on Ukrainian forces, too. Experts have noted that Bakhmut holds only limited strategic value and may not be worth the price being paid in blood, and some of Ukraine’s Western supporters — including those in Washington — have urged Kyiv to consider withdrawing its forces and repositioning them elsewhere instead of enduring high losses defending the city.
Ukrainian army snipers change their position facing Russian troops near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has, however, been steadfast, despite the high costs, but survival has often appeared to be hanging on a knife edge. Russian forces, including Wagner mercenaries, steadily surrounded Ukrainian positions, leaving only one road out of the city. Ukraine has withstood the pressure though.
And if Prigozhin follows through with his plans to pull his mercenaries out of the fight, the regular Russian military could be left facing a dilemma, Menon said.
In comments shared over email with Insider, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar argued that Ukraine has denied Russian President Vladimir Putin both a symbolic and tactical victory, and while the Ukrainian military has lost many troops, abandoning Bakhmut would have allowed the Russians to advance deeper into Ukraine.
Ukraine “tied up a lot of Russian troops in Bakhmut, making it impossible to deploy them to other battle zones” in the wider Donbas region, Menon said. And while Kyiv’s troops have showed “extraordinary resilience” fighting there, they have also enjoyed the consequences of “poor Russian leadership and the infighting and poisonous relationship” between Russia’s professional military and Wagner.
Ukrainian army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires rockets at Russian positions in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Wagner’s potential withdrawal from Bakhmut would come at a particularly dangerous time for Russia, as Ukraine is gearing up for a highly anticipated counteroffensive aimed at liberating occupied territory in the east and south.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Kyiv has received nearly 1,800 armored vehicles and tanks from Western partners, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers on Thursday that Russia has been transitioning to defensive positions after a faltering winter offensive failed to produce results.
Should Wagner leave Bakhmut, the fight for the city would fall solely into the hands of Russia’s military, which may not have the capabilities to hold its positions, said Marina Miron, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She told Insider that this could invite Ukraine to launch its counteroffensive right there because Russian lines would be significantly weakened.
Ukrainian servicemen run to take cover during shelling near the frontline city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region on April 30, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
“From this perspective, if nobody knew that it was going to take this turn — it’s not like the Ukrainian leadership knew that Wagner or Prigozhin, rather, was going to go ballistic — but now given all the factors, yes, it did make sense to stay there, despite the losses, if they can capitalize,” Miron said, noting that this assessment presumes that Wagner withdraws and Ukraine sends more units to try and retake the city.
Holding onto Bakhmut also has symbolic value, and from that point of view, the Ukrainians “were right to stay,” Miron noted. It was crucial for Kyiv to show resolve to its Western military backers, and holding onto the city — even as perilous as the situation got — helped keep security aid flowing, she added.
So in this information space, Miron said, it was important to show that “the Ukrainians are there, that they’re still fighting, they haven’t lost the will, and they haven’t lost the capabilities.”