Ukrainian forces says they are conducting “effective counterattacks” in the Bakhmut area, in comments that are in line with claims from the leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner that Kyiv has recaptured some territory.
Yevgeny Prigozhin on Wednesday accused a Russian brigade of abandoning its position in front-line Bakhmut, allowing Ukraine to seize territory. He reiterated his complaints on Thursday, saying areas previously captured by his fighters, at the expense of heavy casualties, were now being lost to the Ukrainians.
Bakhmut is the site of a months-long assault by Russian forces, including Wagner mercenaries, that has driven thousands from their homes and left the area devastated. But despite the vast amounts of manpower Russia has poured into capturing the city, they have been unable to take total control, and on Wednesday suffered heavy losses in the area.
The Russian Defense Ministry pushed back on claims that Ukrainian forces have made some breakthroughs along the front lines around Bakhmut Thursday, in an unusual late-night post on its Telegram channel.
“The statements spread by individual telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ in various sections of the line of contact are not true,” the ministry said on Telegram.
“Thanks to our well-thought-out defense in the Bakhmut sector, we are getting results from the effective actions of our units,” the commander of Ukrainian Land Forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Telegram Wednesday.
“In particular, we are conducting effective counterattacks. In some areas of the front, the enemy was unable to withstand the onslaught of Ukrainian defenders and retreated to a distance of up to 2 kilometers.”
“Despite a significant concentration of troops and loud statements by Russian war criminals about their intentions to take Bakhmut by May 9, the enemy failed to capture the Ukrainian city. Our defense forces are holding the frontline securely and preventing the enemy from advancing. The battle for Bakhmut continues.”
At least two Russian military bloggers have reported a deteriorating situation for Russian forces around the city of Bakhmut.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday said that assault units continued “to liberate the western part” of the city with air and artillery support. A battle “is currently underway to repel an attack by the AFU unit in the direction of Maloilyinovka,” apparently a reference to a village within the Bakhmut area. “The enemy suffers significant losses in manpower and hardware,” it said.
The Ministry said that other attacks in two parts of the Donetsk region had been “thwarted.”
Prigozhin also accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of lying, after he remarked that Kyiv still needs “a bit more time” before it launches a much anticipated counteroffensive.
“Zelensky is lying,” Prigozhin said on his official social media channels Thursday. “The counteroffensive is in full swing.”
Ukrainian military officials have previously said the counterattacks around Bakhmut mentioned by Prigozhin are part of a “positional struggle,” and not necessarily related to a larger counteroffensive effort.
In a Telegram message on Thursday Prigozhin said: “The situation on the western flanks is developing according to the worst of the predicted scenarios. Those territories that were liberated with blood and lives of our comrades every day progressing by dozens or hundreds of meters during many months, today are abandoned almost without any fight by those who are supposed to hold our flanks,” he said.
Prigozhin’s perspective is in stark contrast to the views of one Ukrainian battalion commander in the area, who told CNN that it was Russian regular forces that were putting up the stiffest resistance, while Wagner units had been the first to run.
‘They just ran the hell out of there’
Prigozhin has also indicated that Ukrainian forces have been able to advance south of Bakhmut.
He had earlier fumed that a Russian brigade “fled” from Bakhmut area, allowing Ukrainians to seize kilometers of territory. In comments Tuesday, Prigozhin said that “one of the units of the Ministry of Defense fled from one of our flanks, abandoning their positions. They all fled and [laid] bare a front nearly 2 kilometers wide and 500 meters deep.”
Prighozhin said that the “72nd brigade f***ed up three square kilometers today, on which I had about 500 people killed. Because it was a strategic bridgehead. They just ran the hell out of there.”
He also blamed another private military contractor, known as “The Blue Torch,” for the reverse, saying it “scattered just like the 72nd Brigade did.”
“Instead of fighting, we have intrigues spinning all the time. We have a ministry of intrigue instead of a Ministry of Defense. That’s why we have an army running,” Prigozhin added.
The 72nd Brigade (or Separate Motorized Regiment as it is sometimes called) is part of the Russian military’s Western Military District.
As for soldiers fleeing, Prigozhin said: “That’s not the soldiers’ problem. It is the problem of those who manage them and who set the tasks. The fish rots from the head. A soldier leaves the trenches because it is not necessary to die [as] useless. A soldier may die, but a soldier should not die because of the utter stupidity of his leadership.”
The developments mark dramatic turn of events in an area where gains and losses have usually been measured in a few meters.
‘Unclenching the pincers’
According to one well-known Russian military blogger in the area, the task of defending the flanks around Bakhmut was passed to regular Russian forces, while Wagner has consolidated its presence in the city itself.
One Ukrainian commander in the Bakhmut area said Thursday that Ukrainian units had struck at the Russians’ flanks and the enemy had retreated.
Taras Deyak of the Karpatska Sich tactical group told Radio Liberty: “The enemy’s flanks are cracking. Our intelligence has been watching and reporting on this. Indeed, a number of measures were planned and are still in progress.”
“We are so to say unclenching the pincers” – a reference to the attempts by Russian forces since the beginning of the year to squeeze Bakhmut.
“This allowed us to enter the city and facilitated our logistics,” Deyak said, while acknowledging that “the situation in the city of Bakhmut is very difficult, very tense and at times uncontrollable, to tell the truth.”
“The enemy has indeed occupied a very large part of the city. In fact, we control about 15% of Bakhmut. But we are holding on and we are holding the high-rise buildings - it is strategic.”
Deyak also dismissed claims made by Prigozhin that his fighters were deprived of munitions, saying Russian “artillery is hitting hard, the shelling is 24/7.” He also said that “new forces are arriving, these are regular forces of the Russian Armed Forces, who do not yet understand the situation in the city. We know this because we killed a lot of them as well as and took them prisoners.”
Deyak claimed that “Prigozhin is now amassing large forces in the city because he wants a political victory, to take the city politically. But he is running out of cannon fodder, so he is pulling up his cannon fodder from the flanks, and handing over the defense there to the regular units of the Russian Armed Forces.”
According to the Institute for the Study of War, geolocated footage published since Tuesday also showed that “Ukrainian forces likely conducted successful limited counterattacks north of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Bila Hora (14km southwest of Bakhmut) and made marginal advances in these areas.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that Airborne Forces (VDV) are constraining the actions of Ukrainian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut. However, other Russian units assigned to the Bakhmut area appear to have fared less well, including the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, which has lost hundreds of soldiers, according to Ukrainian estimates.
The ISW says that the 72nd “is emblematic of many of the endemic force generation issues constantly faced by the Russian military.” A brigade largely formed of volunteers last year, it was reported to have been severely depleted during Ukraine’s sudden offensive in Kharkiv last September.
CNN’s Nic Robertson, AnneClaire Stapleton and Josh Pennington contributed to this report.