Russia's Wagner Group closes in on Bakhmut as fight for Ukrainian city intensifies

The leader of the group said fighters were near the city centre and on the outskirts

A Ukrainian serviceman near Bakhmut carries a 152mm shell to fire a Msta-B howitzer towards Russian positions.  AFP
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The Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries has pushed into parts of the strategic city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbas region, the head of the group claimed.

Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video on Telegram purporting to show his fighters standing on top of a partly-destroyed building, waving a Wagner flag.

“The lads are mucking about, shooting home video”, he wrote. “They brought this from Bakhmut this morning, practically the centre of the city.”

The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has in recent weeks and months been the flashpoint for some of the fiercest clashes between Ukrainian troops and invading forces.

A still image taken from video apparently shows Wagner fighters on top of a building in Bakhmut. Reuters

Analysts say taking control of Bakhmut would be a major battle prize for Moscow as it represents “a gateway” to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, both of which have been subject to recent Russian missile strikes. Bringing the city under its remit would also open up a way for the Kremlin’s soldiers to advance further west and north.

Mr Prigozhin on Friday followed up his message by claiming Wagner members, most of whom are convicts, “have practically surrounded Bakhmut”.

Speaking in a video, he claimed the fight for the key city in the Donetsk region was swinging in Russia’s favour. Addressing Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mr Prigozhin said “the pincers are closing” around Kyiv’s troops still in the area, with only one road out of the city still open.

Appearing in combat uniform, he told the camera: “Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut. Only one route [out] is left.”

The camera panned to show three captured Ukrainians — a grey-bearded older man and two boys — asking to be allowed to go home. Analysis suggests the film was made in Paraskoviivka, a village 7km north of the centre of Bakhmut.

Videos circulating on social media claimed to show Ukrainian forces blowing up bridges in Bakhmut.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, told Ukrainian NV Radio the situation was “critical”, with fighting going on “round the clock”.

“They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every metre of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy”, he said.

“We need as much ammunition as possible. There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.”

On Wednesday, President Zelenskyy said fighting in Bakhmut was at its “most difficult.” Reports early on Thursday suggested Ukrainian troops were hanging on to their positions in the city, but they were said to be coming under constant attack from the Russian side.

If Bakhmut is captured by the invading forces, it would represent Russia's first major victory for more than six months.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary force, in Paraskoviivka, Ukraine. Reuters

Mr Prigozhin, 61, is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” after his catering company dished out meals for the Russian leader and his guests on several occasions.

The businessman founded the Wagner Group in 2014 and its fighters have played a major role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Prigozhin last month announced an end to his recruitment drive of inmates from Russian prisons, but failed to offer an explanation for the move. His statement followed reports of institutional pushback against Wagner from other figures in the Russian security services.

Wagner’s claims of battleground gains were seen as an embarrassment for the Russian army.

“The army has to do something about Prigozhin eventually,” a former senior official in Russia’s security services was quoted as saying. “It’ll end badly for him. The points he scored are all about to expire, and nobody likes him.”

Meanwhile, President Putin was on Friday due to hold a regular meeting of the Russian Security Council, a day after scrapping a trip to southern Russia after an attack in a village near the border with Ukraine.

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Updated: March 03, 2023, 12:12 PM

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