On Saturday, mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, declared a triumph in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut following an arduous eight-month battle. The pro-Moscow faction, for the most part, expressed great joy in successfully displacing the resilient Ukrainian defenders. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refuted the claims on Sunday, a Russian businessman and Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed the contrary in a voice message to his extensive following of 420000 users on the messaging app Telegram.
In a voice message to his large following on Telegram, Prigozhin boldly asserted that the village of Bakhmut in Ukraine no longer harbors any Ukrainian soldiers. He claimed that refusing to take prisoners had resulted in numerous casualties among the Ukrainian military, with many corpses left behind. According to Prigozhin, Bakhmut had been fully captured within its legal bounders, down to the last centimeter.
Following an intense and protracted conflict lasting eight months, mercenaries affiliated with the Russian private military contractor known as the Wagner Group declared victory in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.#Bakhmut #Ukraine #Russia #WagnerGroup #UkraineRussiaWar pic.twitter.com/OJDf943twg
— News Live (@NewsLiveFree) May 22, 2023
He accused Zelensky of being deceitful or uninformed about the ground reality, suggesting a lack of awareness among military leaders. A Telegram channel known as the Wagner Orchestra, self-identifying as “supporters” of the mercenary group, released a video showing Alexander “Ratibor” Kuznetsov, a bearded commander, hoisting the Russian and Wagner flags above the devastated city. In the footage, Kuznetsov can be heard using derogatory language targeting Ukrainians, instructing them to “go f*** themselves!”
Triumph Bakhmut Fuels Wagner Group’s Fan Base
A separate video was shared on the Wagner Orchestra channel showcasing a group of jubilant Wagner fighters firing their weapons into the sky, with a Wagner flag proudly fluttering in the background. Meanwhile, an article from the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti attributes any civilian casualties during the “liberation of Artemovsk” to Ukrainian forces. The article notes that prior to the conflict, the city had a population of over seventy thousand, but most residents had fled. According to the accounts of refugees, Ukrainian soldiers allegedly deliberately targeted civilians.
The article claims that despite Ukrainian propaganda, the capture of Fortress Bakhmut had indeed occurred, enabling Russian forces to advance toward the nearby town of Chasiv Yar. Andrey Medvedev, a former journalist and Moscow politician, expressed on Telegram that this victory is a significant step towards the ultimate triumph. He acknowledged the arduous and lengthy path still ahead, filled with setbacks and moments of doubt. But he emphasized the importance of remembering Bakhmut as a symbol of glory for the Russian soldier.
Strategic Concerns Amidst Bakhmut’s Capture
Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, a former Russian soldier and intelligence officer who led the initial uprising of east Ukrainian separatists in 2014-15, presents a contrasting view to Moscow’s claims of victory. With nearly 800,000 subscribers on Telegram, Strelkov paints a grim picture, stating that the capture of Bakhmut lacks tactical significance and is instead part of the Kremlin’s strategy to “freeze the conflict through a compromise agreement.”
As a staunch Russian nationalist, Strelkov expresses concerns that Moscow is not treating the conquest of Ukraine with sufficient seriousness. He asserts that the overall operation resulted in a strategic failure, with the enemy still present in most key areas of the Donbas region. He believes Russia aims to wear down the enemy until Kyiv and its Western allies consent to the retention of Crimea and Donbas.
Despite the claimed victory, Strelkov considers Bakhmut an unnecessary Pyrrhic triumph that consumed excessive resources, leaving the Russian side vulnerable to a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Strelkov highlights the depletion of weapon stockpiles, ammunition, and human resources, which are crucial for future offensive operations. According to him, Bakhmut received heightened attention in recent months to achieve some semblance of propaganda success and provide a momentary respite.
Putin Acclaims Russian Troops & Wagner Group for Seizing Bakhmut
According to a statement from the Kremlin quoted by the state news agency TASS, Vladimir Putin extended his congratulations to the assault units of Wagner and all service members from Russian armed forces who offered vital support and flank coverage during the operation to liberate the city. The Russian president also mentioned that individuals who displayed exceptional valor and commitment would receive commendations and awards.
Uncertainty Surrounds the Liberation of Bakhmut
Following a week of significant advances by Ukrainian forces on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, conflicting claims have emerged regarding the city’s liberation. While Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin asserted earlier that Bakhmut had been captured, Ukrainian authorities denied the claim initially. Still, they had not responded immediately to the defense ministry’s statement.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar posted on Telegram, describing the situation in Bakhmut as critical, with heavy fighting and Ukrainian troops maintaining defense in the city’s “Airplane area.” She mentioned that Ukrainian forces currently control specific industrial and infrastructure facilities nearby. However, independent verification of these claims by Al Jazeera was not possible.
Strategic Maneuvering and Symbolic Significance in Bakhmut
Whether Ukrainian forces have fully withdrawn from Bakhmut, they have been gradually retreating to concentrated positions on the city’s western periphery. Simultaneously, Ukrainian troops have gained significant territory to the north and south, pushing back Russian forces. Russia has acknowledged some territorial losses around Bakhmut but refuted Prigozhin’s assertions that the flanks defended by regular troops have collapsed.
According to Kyiv, its objective in Bakhmut has been to divert Russian forces from other fronts and engage them in the city. The aim is to inflict significant casualties on the Russians, weakening Moscow’s defensive positions in preparation for a major upcoming counteroffensive. On the other hand, Moscow has consistently asserted that capturing Bakhmut is crucial for advancing deeper into the Donbas region, which it claims to have annexed from Ukraine.
Despite launching an extensive offensive that failed to gain significant territory elsewhere, Bakhmut has remained the primary target. Yevgeny Prigozhin, while acknowledging the limited strategic importance of Bakhmut, recognizes its immense symbolic significance due to the staggering losses incurred in what has been Europe’s most devastating ground battle since World War II.