Ukraine strikes back in Bakhmut, as Russia wrangles with Wagner
What happened in the 63rd week of Russia’s war in Ukraine?
In the 63rd week of the war, Ukraine said its armed forces broke through advancing Russian formations northwest of Bakhmut, the city Moscow’s forces have been trying to capture for nine months.
Geolocated footage showed Ukrainian troops counterattacking near Khromove and Bila Hora, settlements west and southwest of Bakhmut that Russian forces have been trying to seize in order to encircle the city.
Ukrainian sources claimed their forces advanced 2.6km (1.6 miles) along a 3km-wide (1.9-mile) front, destroying the 6th and 8th companies of the 72nd Separate Motor Rifle Brigade.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner Group of mercenaries who have spearheaded the offensive in the city, appeared to confirm the Russian retreat. On May 9, he said a Russian unit abandoned its position near Bakhmut because of the “stupidity” of commanders.
“Today, everything is being done so that the front line crumbles. Today, one of the defence ministry’s units fled one of our flanks, abandoning their positions. Everyone fled,” said Prigozhin.
It was a rare setback for Russian forces, which on May 5 had advanced towards Khromove. Two days later they again advanced in an area 15km (9 miles) north of Bakhmut.
Russian forces mounted dozens of assaults in the city, and by Moscow’s account, advanced by a few city blocks. Ukrainian defenders are occupying a shrinking perch in the western suburbs.
Bakhmut is the bloodiest battle of the war for both sides. During the nine months it has lasted, it has cost Russia as many as 100,000 casualties, Ukraine’s eastern forces spokesman Serhii Cherevaty estimated – half of its estimated overall losses.
Russia’s top generals appeared to waver in their determination to capture the city, worried about defending an 800km (497-mile) front against an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukraine said it has trained and equipped 12 mechanised battalions.
Prigozhin threatened to pull his forces out, complaining that the Russian defence ministry has starved his men of artillery shells, costing lives.
On May 5, Prigozhin recorded an open message to Russia’s defence chiefs that he was withdrawing his men from Bakhmut.
“On May 10, 2023, we are obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the defence ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds. I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because, in the absence of ammunition, they’re doomed to perish senselessly,” Prigozhin said.
Russia ‘likely deprioritised Bakhmut’
In a separate video, wherein he stood beside dozens of corpses he said were Wagner fighters, Prigozhin unleashed expletives at the military leadership.
“His visible and visceral anger suggests that the Russian [defence ministry] has likely deprioritised Bakhmut and shifted operational focus elsewhere in the theatre in ways that may seriously compromise Wagner’s ability to operate effectively,” wrote the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Russian defence chief Sergei Shoigu told Colonel-General A Kuzmenkov, responsible for logistics, “to keep under special control the issues of continuous and rhythmic supply of troops in the areas of a special military operation with all the necessary weapons and military equipment”, said the defence ministry.
“Russian forces have largely ceased offensive operations throughout the theatre, likely signifying a transition to the defensive. It would be an operationally sound decision for the Russian MoD to begin withholding and stockpiling ammunition and supplies in order to prepare for any Ukrainian counteroffensive actions,” said the Institute.
Ukraine’s Military Media Center said Russian forces were stockpiling weapons in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“The enemy has focused its main efforts on actively preparing to repel a possible counteroffensive,” it said. “The aggressor continues to actively transfer from the Russian Federation … additional weapons.”
On May 6, leader of Chechen forces Ramzan Kadyrov asked the Russian defence ministry to relieve his men of duty at various points along the front, so they could take over Wagner’s positions in Bakhmut.
On the same day, Prigozhin asked Shoigu in writing to replace his mercenaries by midnight on May 10. But the following day he said he had received promises of more ammunition, though only a 10th of what he requested.
That ammunition came with a threat that Prigozhin would be considered guilty of “treason towards the motherland” if he withdrew from Bakhmut, he said.
“Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely effectively blackmailed the Russian MoD into allocating resources to Wagner forces in Bakhmut,” said the ISW. But the blackmail clearly ran both ways.
Ukraine’s Cherevaty believed Prigozhin was merely trying to cover up his failures, saying Russian forces were firing 25,000 shells a day in Bakhmut and Lyman, the most active fronts.
“Such statements of the head of the Wagner PMC are most likely connected with the fact that he took on himself too many promises from the capture of Bakhmut and comes up with this nonsense about ammunition starvation, since, apart from the loss of manpower, there are no victories behind him,” Cherevaty said.
If Prigozhin did receive more resources, it didn’t seem to improve his mood. In a discussion about ammunition, he seemed to liken Shoigu to a “happy grandfather” figure who “thinks that he is good” … but turns out to be a “complete ass”.
Wagner faces a growing set of nations that view it as a terrorist group. The French parliament designated it a terrorist organisation on May 10 and urged the European Union to do the same. The European Parliament has done it, and so has the United States. The United Kingdom is also reportedly planning the move.
“They kill and torture. They massacre and pillage. They intimidate and manipulate with almost total impunity,” French legislator Benjamin Haddad told parliament. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered his thanks for the legislation.
Artillery ammunition was also at the heart of Europe’s effort to bolster Ukraine.
On May 4, the European Commission adopted the Ammunition Support Act (ASAP) to speed up the production and transfer of ammunition to Ukraine. The European Parliament fast-tracked it for a vote by June 1. It would still be July before the European Council gave it the final approval.
The EU has budgeted 1 billion euros ($1.1bn) to help member states replenish stockpiles of shells they are sending Ukraine.
“We are delivering on the third track – ramping up and speeding up the defence industrial production of ammunition in Europe,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Europe’s goal is to provide Ukraine with a million artillery rounds over a year.
The US alone has provided 2.8 million artillery rounds of various calibres, and on May 9, the Pentagon announced a new $1.2bn package of military aid to Ukraine.
It included 155mm artillery shells and artillery maintenance, but also air defence systems and ammunition, drone-launched missiles and systems that will integrate Ukraine’s existing air defences with the air defence systems it is receiving from NATO allies.
Ukraine may have begun to steal forward in poorly defended occupied areas. The Russian defence ministry acknowledged on May 7 that Ukrainian forces held islands in the Dnipro River delta, something first reported on April 20.
Ukraine also said it downed a Russian hypersonic missile over the capital, Kyiv, using a newly acquired US Patriot air defence system, in what would be a first in its ability to intercept one of Moscow’s most modern weapons.
The KH-47 Kinzhal missile is an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of up to 2,000km (1,240 miles) and flies at 10 times the speed of sound, making it hard to intercept.
Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said on Telegram that the Kh-47 was launched by a MiG-31K aircraft from Russian territory and was shot down with a single Patriot missile.
Russia has claimed there are no defences against its new generation of hypersonic missiles. Last October, two Ukrainian Sukhoi planes were shot out of the sky by missiles that went undetected on Western radar. They were believed to be Russian R-37M hypersonic missiles.
When will the counteroffensive begin in earnest? Ukrainian officials say, “soon”. On May 11, President Zelenskyy said to start it now would cost too many lives.