by Lucas Webber
Friday, 9
December 2022
Analysis
10:10

The future of the Wagner Group rests on Bakhmut

The mercenary force is leading the charge for a key battleground in Ukraine
by Lucas Webber
A Ukrainian firefighter in the Donestk Oblast. Credit: Getty

Since late May, Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast has been the site of extremely heavy fighting. Yet, until recently, the city had garnered relatively little media attention compared to the successive Ukrainian victories in Kharkov and Kherson. This has changed as of late, with #Bakhmut trending regularly on Twitter and a flood of news reports and opinion pieces on the battle published daily.

Taking Bakhmut is requisite to Russia winning the wider war in the Donbas — a chief strategic objective for Moscow and another step toward its goal of ultimately turning Ukraine into a dysfunctional rump state. It is therefore heavily fortified, and the Ukrainians have dug in deep, thus far fending off Russian advances. This is despite being under constant heavy artillery fire and air bombardment that has levelled entire sections of the city. In doing so, the defenders have sustained serious hits, with the New York Times detailing how doctors at the city’s only hospital report ‘an almost unending stream of Ukrainian casualties.’


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Further, emerging developments indicate that the situation is deteriorating for the Ukrainians, as Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and other aligned forces intensify offensive pressure and make incremental gains with the intent of enveloping the city. Wagner and other personnel in the area have recently been reinforced by conventional Russian soldiers rerouted from the southern city of Kherson and the possible future arrival of mobilised forces. Wagner itself has been replenishing its losses and building its ranks through public recruitment activities and the hiring of prison inmates.

Even with the newly-arrived reinforcements in place, the group continues to play a leading role in the campaign, and there is no doubt that the organisation’s controversial leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, wants it to be his men having their photos taken in the town square if or when Bakhmut is taken. Some Western commentators have asserted that the Russians are suffering heavy losses only to capture a city they view as strategically insignificant. But the response by the Ukrainian military and simple geography seem to disprove this narrative. Ukraine has been pouring reinforcements into Bakhmut to prevent Russia from opening the gateway to the next major defensive line, which includes the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. On 6th December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the latter of these two cities, in part to boost morale and ease anxieties about Russian advances.

If Wagner spearheads a successful campaign with this objective— after months of humiliating blunders, losses, and setbacks for Russia — it would provide a considerable military and political victory for the Kremlin and elevate the ‘Orchestra’s’ standing in Moscow.

A win of this magnitude could reverberate well beyond the Donbas as, in addition to Ukraine, Wagner reportedly operates in Syria, Mali, and the Central African Republic, among other countries. With the world watching, Wagner leading the mission to capture Bakhmut could potentially boost international demand for their services. And since the group works hand in glove with the Kremlin, this would ultimately mean greater Russian influence in these countries. Wagner could be the vehicle for Putin to extend his reach ever further.

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Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

There is very little in the performance of the Wagner group in Ukraine to indicate they’re much sore serious and competent an organisation than the Russian army, airforce or navy. Though they made get paid 10x as much.
Seriously, if you’re dredging random prison inmates to bolster your supposed elite military force …
Absolutely nothing about Russia’s fiasco of a Ukraine invasion has done anything to boost perceptions of their military competence or the quality and reliability of their kit. And it’s too late to change that now. As a sales demonstration it’s been a disaster. Business schools and military academies will be using this as a case study for decades – as a “how not to” exercise. Perhaps we’ll get a comedy film version like “The Death of Stalin”. Though it’s no laughing matter.

Tony w
Tony w
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Somewhat true but they have western style command structure different to Soviet style we are everywhere else in this war even in Ukraine army in many sectors

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yeah this is the only source I’ve seen that’s described the Bakhmut battle as strategic. The land bridge to Crimea is far more important, and now it’s under siege with Himars.
Weird article actually, trying to claim a victory in Bakhmut will be significant, despite massive losses.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
1 month ago

People need to look at a topographical map of the Bakhmut area. The city is dominated by a line of hills to the west of the city that’s 80m higher than the city itself.
If the Russians do take the city, they’ll just be sitting in a bowl, sitting ducks for UAF artillery.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

There is little danger that Vagner, or any other Russia unit, will get to Kramatorsk or Slavyansk. If it took half a year to get this far (when Russia still had a viable army) they will more likely culmiinate, and try to survive the winter.

Indeef, whether the supply-starved Russian army can even hold the line til spring is very doubtful.

This is the price Russia must pay for tolerating a kleptocratic regime. It will probably result in half a million casualties by spring. The line may not hold. We will have mass exoduses from Donbas and Crimea. We’ll need Blue Helmets to restore order.

The most likely outcome is Russia’s economic and demographic collapse, with much of the population replaced by Central Asians–a much nicer group of people.

And that’s, a win-win for everyone.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Logan
Tony w
Tony w
1 month ago
Reply to  martin logan

Wagner leader has already come out saying he doesn’t care about losses he just intents chewing up quality Ukrainian troops. Sick mindset but it might work. He loses many prisoners Putin wants to get rid of while hurting Ukraines best

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

Prigozhin has little real power, and little prospect of becoming a powerful player within Putin’s power vertical.
But Russia is a nation uniquely weak once its power vertical collapses. Without a recognized “Vozhd” (boss), every ambitious actor will try to be the next big boss. We saw that in 1612, in 1917, and in 1991.
Just as marginal groups and parties played a pivotal role in Russia’s 1917 revolution, so too Prigozhin probably counts on using his mercs to gain power–and perhaps supreme power–in whatever will be left of Russia after this.
And in a Russia rapidly descending into its own peculiar psychosis, he has as good a chance as any.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

All the geopolitical points and analysis of military strategy aside, the question might be – is a better led, better paid elite (Wagner gp) going to have more combat motivation than the Ukrainian troops? V unlikely. The threat to the Ukrainian’s is existential. It’s not for the Russian troops, whichever brigade they fight for. Motivation is a force multiplier.

Last edited 1 month ago by j watson
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

I wonder whether the author is familiar with the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”.

Serge Orloff
Serge Orloff
1 month ago

Reading the articles and the comments below… where do you get your information from? The language used in the article already suggests biassed sources. I understand that it is hard for many not to take sides, but if we do, then we need to inform the readers of the other side’s perspective. I am willing to try doing that. I will comment first on a single statement, and then if you’d like to hear more, while keeping a cool head, I’d love to continue. Lucas, I don’t mind discussing the article with you.

successive Ukrainian victories in Kharkov and Kherson

After the retreat in the Kharkov areas, Russians admitted a few things.
Since the reality and goals have changed, the approximate force of 160k troops was insufficient to complete the task. They were stretched for over 1,000 kilometers, and the Ukrainian army was able to form a powerful strike force where the Russian defences were weak and penetrated deep. This is why, after the Russians managed to stabilise the frontlines, it was decided to mobilise 300,000 reservists.A lack of a unified command centre created a lot of issues. This is why General Surovikin is now in charge.The Russians were slacking on building the defence lines. Lesson learned. Now they build fortifications everywhere.
It should be noted that the Russians aim to preserve their relatively small task force and should be respected from a military standpoint for how they managed the retreat. Not without losses, but they managed to avoid a disaster.
Now Kherson. Not a single Russian soldier died in Kherson. While most of the fighting was happening toward the Inhulets River, the Russians evacuated tens of thousands of civilians and then withdrew. There were two main reasons for leaving the city:
1. the logistics and 2. the destruction of the Nova Kahkovka dam. It would flood the whole area, and there was a risk of losing 20,000 entrapped troops. The retreat was well planned and executed. I repeat again: not a single Russian soldier died. 
The rest is a PR victory for Ukraine. The Russians saved the troops, and they need to buy more time while getting the reservists ready.

I will ignore any emotional comments.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Serge Orloff

Hopefully they will soon accomplish an even greater “well planned and executed” task.
Retreat to the borders of Russia in 2013.
Seriously, this makes no sense from Putin’s point of view.
Ukraine will come out of the war with most of its territory intact, and Russia’s economy permanently weakened. The attacks on civilian infrastructure only increase support from the West, and strengthens Ukrainian resolve. However cold and hungry you are, no one opens a locked door to people who will murder, rob, and rape you.
This also shows the failings of the Orthodox/Soviet/Russian mind. Never really having taken part in the western thought developed in the Middle Ages, Russians are extremely poor strategists. They can never see things as they really are, as a single, unified picture. Proof comes from Crimea, the Russo-Japanese War, WW1, Afghanistan–even WW2 in the first half.
Unable to see the world in a unified way, with all its interrelated complexities, they hold completely inconsistent thoughts at the same time:
“Ukraine is an existential threat–and it will collapse in 3 days.”
“NATO wants to destroy Russia–so the fat, soft Europeans will just roll over if the price of gas goes up.”
Undoubtedly, inconsistencies make for great literature. But it also guarantees failure in the Real World, particularly at the gaming table, as Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” testifies. “Doubling down” usually ends in losing everything.
Still, I suspect that the mood in Moscow is that Ivan Durak will once again triumph, despite all his intellectual failings.
In the Real, Western World, however, he never does.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Logan
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Serge Orloff

While I am am quite sympathetic to the Russian pov on Ukraine, and exasperated by the stupidity and hypocrisy of the Americans, I also have to say that, whatever the outcome, none of this expansionism can fix Russia’s problems.

Isn’t it really just a smokescreen to distract Russians from the corruption and incompetence of the regime?

Based on its material and cultural assets, Russia should be among the richest countries on earth, but it’s just a giant third world slum.

Tony w
Tony w
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Many leaders start conflicts to distract their population from the failures of the leaders elsewhere. China is trying it on now with Taiwan. Turkey in Syria. Russia now stubbornlt pursuing new lands the same I now suspect which will end very poorly for Russia. Already their economy is approaching depression conditions

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Serge Orloff

You appear to claim that the retreat had both “no losses” (“Not without losses, but they managed to avoid a disaster.”) and yet “The retreat was well planned and executed. I repeat again: not a single Russian soldier died.”.
Apart from the apparent contradiction, I’m curious just how you can be quite so certain amongst the fog of war that not a single Russian soldier died. Do you also have exact the injury count ? And the Ukrainian casualty count ? If I might put your own question back to you: where do you get your information from ?

Tony w
Tony w
1 month ago
Reply to  Serge Orloff

“Not a single Russian soldier died in Kherson defence,…”. You lost us there mate. Saw plenty of vids of dead Russians as ukr advanced. Maybe you classify cannon fodder differently while airborne troops escape

P Branagan
P Branagan
1 month ago

“How much evidence is required before it is clear that Western Civilization is empty of integrity, judgment, reason, morality, empathy, compassion, self-awareness, truth, empty of everything that Western Civilization once respected?

All that is left of the West is insouciance and unrestrained evil.”

~Paul Craig Roberts, former Undersecretary Of Treasury, Reagan Administration

Jeff Andrews
Jeff Andrews
1 month ago

‘The Collective west’, Europe and the English speaking world support some repulsive regimes and proxies. This criminal regime in Kiev demands artillery only to fire it at civilians in Donetsk killing many every day.
They support ISIS in Syria, even shipping some of them to Ukraine. Does anyone realise that NATO paid LaFarge for 2.75 million tons of cement to build a defence line in Syria which is why they needed the Russians to destroy it.
Anyway Slavi Ukraine, Whatever turns you on, but don’t forget what goes around comes around, it might be these bolshy Brits manning the trenches in Northern Europe next. See how much you support Zekinsky and his expensive habits then. I’d love to throw Rishi Sunak and every western politicians in a trench and leave them to fate.

Jim Denham
Jim Denham
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Andrews

Jeff: are you in the pay of Putin or just a useful idiot who makes such comments for free?

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Denham

Just another tankie. Whatever happens, it’s always the West’s fault.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Andrews

Indeed. Russia’s victory is just around the corner…