Above: Additional explanation of the Wagner Group's role in Bakhmut, sourced from Sky News.
For the past month, the battle for the Ukrainian-controlled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been the focal point of Russia's nearly year-long war against its democratic neighbor. Unlike in previous engagements, however, a disproportionate share of the fighting and dying on the Russian side has been done by the Wagner Group, a nominally private military company headed by Vladimir Putin confidante Yevgeney Prigozhin.
Since September 2022, Prigozhin has gained increased notoriety in Russia and abroad, thanks in part to an active campaign aimed at recruiting prison colony volunteers for service in his private army. But despite speculation in some circles that the former caterer might have his eye on Putin's job, a recent reshuffling of the Russian command in Ukraine has seen Prigozhin ally Sergey Surovikin replaced as theater commander by Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
The chain of command reflects the relative importance of Russia's regular and irregular forces on the ground. Although it was Wagner troops that first entered the salt-mining town of Soledar, ten miles north of Bakhmut, the seeming Wagner success depended on two key, difficult-to-replicate factors: overwhelming artillery support from the Russian regular army, and a willingness to sacrifice Prigozhin's new recruits in wave attacks aimed at revealing Ukrainian forward positions.
Sergey, a Ukrainian soldier who was wounded near Bakhmut in December, told Newsweek what the battle looked like from inside a trench on the frontlines.
"The Russians fight as if they have an unlimited supply of both men and materiel," Sergey said. "The regular army might be doing the artillery work, but it's the Wagner guys who are going forward."
He described fighting that resembles World War I trench warfare, with attacks coming in waves. The first wave of Russian attackers do not fare well.
"The first wave consists of guys with basic Soviet equipment, and their job is to determine exactly where we are and what we have at each position, whether its snipers or machine gunners or mortars," he explained. "They're only moving in one direction, which is directly at us, and we kill them by the dozen."
In the typical Russian attack, the second wave is the most lethal, the Ukrainian soldier said.
"These are guys who clearly know how to use their weapons, who understand how to move forward tactically, who are actually communicating and coordinating among themselves," he explained. "These guys aren't afraid to retreat. Clearly, there's no one waiting on their side of the lines to shoot the second-wave troops if they make the tactical decision to withdraw."
Despite the losses that Ukrainian frontline soldiers have inflicted on the first-wave Wagner fighters, Russian artillery is also taking its toll on the defenders' manpower.
"Sometimes firefights will go on for 12 hours, and our artillery ammunition starts to run low," Sergey said. "Theirs doesn't. They'll cover a quadrant so thoroughly that you can stand with one foot in one crater and the other foot in a different crater. Our losses really might be close to on par with theirs, but on our side, it's almost all due to artillery."
While the war of attrition currently being waged around Bakhmut continues to take a heavy toll on both sides, Russia's territorial gains in Soledar have not significantly changed the situation on the battlefield.
"The Russian push into Soledar does not presage the imminent encirclement of Bakhmut," George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. "It does not give Russia direct access to any vital transportation networks, and it was accomplished largely by using highly attritional wave tactics, which came at tremendous cost to the attackers themselves."
Soledar has little tactical value on the frontlines, he said.
"Russian information operations have wildly exaggerated the operational significance of this battle," Barros said.
While the presence of Russian troops in Soledar should not be taken as a sign that Moscow's forces are poised to continue moving forward in Ukraine, the fact that Wagner Group soldiers have done much of the heavy fighting and dying around Bakhmut is still significant. While seasoned Ukrainian soldiers like Sergey have been forced to dig in under artillery fire, Russia's regular army has taken the opportunity to recover following this past autumn's successful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson regions.
"It's difficult to say what the state of the Russian army is, because we haven't really seen them in serious action for several months," Barros said. "They've probably been getting more contract soldiers. They've probably been resting, re-equipping, repairing their stuff. They appear to be setting conditions for a long, protracted war. But it would still take a lot of work for them to come back decisively better than they were in the fall."
In other words, as Russian Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov takes back control of operations in Ukraine, the army he heads may or may not prove to be a notable improvement over the fighting force last seen withdrawing from Kherson. According to Barros, the wait to find out is unlikely to last long.
"You usually do a general officer switch when you're looking to change approach," Barros said, "and it's clear that Surovikin's campaign aimed at degrading Ukrainian infrastructure did not succeed in doing anything more than creating some suffering for civilians."
"We think the appointment of Gerasimov advances Putin's desire to conduct a decisive strategic action in 2023," he added. "That might take the form of a Russian offensive, or it might focus on defeating an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive before then attempting to take back the initiative. But we know they're retaining 150,000 from the September mobilization for a reason."
Despite the celebratory reports on Russian television following the capture of Soledar, more sober-minded analysts in Moscow itself agree with Barros that the fate of one minor salt-mining settlement will not decide the outcome of the war, regardless of which unit's fighters were the first to enter it.
"What happened in Soledar was the taking of Soledar," Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin told Newsweek. "It would be an exaggeration to call this operation a turning point in the conflict, but it has been a serious reputational loss for Ukraine. Their optimism that military actions would soon end in their favor has ended."
After the successful Ukrainian counteroffensives this past fall, the bloody eastern standoff of the past two months has indeed dashed hopes that the Russian army might be on the edge of imminent collapse. Instead, the likelihood of a prolonged fight has convinced Western governments to provide Ukraine with new weapons systems, including PATRIOT air-defense batteries and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. At the same time, Russia has been ramping up domestic production of military hardware and working to supplement its forces already in the field.
"Mobilization has been going non-stop," Shurygin said. "We've already brought in 300,000, and 150,000 still have not been sent to the front. Instead, they are being equipped, trained, and prepared for offensive actions."
"Ukraine is losing an enormous amount of manpower just to prevent us from moving forward." he added. "Based on everything I hear from our military people, Russia can maintain this tempo for longer than Ukraine can."
Whether or not Shurygin is correct about Russia's capacity to continue taking casualties at its current rate, Moscow's belief that it can do so all but guarantees that this war will not end until one side or the other is physically incapable of continuing the fight. The outcome, as before, will depend largely on the willingness and ability of Kyiv's democratic partners to supply soldiers like Sergey with all of the kit they need in order to push Russian troops off of Ukrainian territory once and for all.
(c) 2023, Newsweek