It is a battle that has cost thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of lives, but Vladmir Putin’s army appears to be on the verge of its first major victory in six months with the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brutal oligarch whose Wagner Group mercenaries have led the months-long assault on Bakhmut, claimed Friday the town was all but surrounded and said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky should order his forces to leave via the only route still open to them.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut. Only one route is left,” he said in a video filmed on a rooftop in an unknown location. “The pincers are closing.”
Wagner is notorious for its brutality—its recruits are warned never to surrender—and it has released videos showing its soldiers executing their own with sledgehammers for desertion or treachery.
In the latest clip, Prigozhin introduces three clearly terrified Ukrainian prisoners, two young men and an older man with a gray beard, who appeal directly to Zelensky to let them leave and return to their families.
Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region that had a pre-war population of around 70,000, is all but destroyed after more than six months of Russian attacks. Although the town has some strategic significance, its greater value for Prigozhin appears to lie in his desire to be the one who delivers President Vladimir Putin a rare victory. He also will have been eyeing the vast reserves of very pure salt deposits in the mines under the city, which could explain his obsession with capturing Bakhmut whatever the cost.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Wagner itself has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in the battle for Bakhmut, with a further 10,000 wounded. Many of them were recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a pardon and sent directly into the Donbas “meat grinder.”
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The Russian army proper has also suffered heavy losses in the battle. According to official Ukrainian estimates as many as 20,000 Russians have been killed in Bakhmut, including thousands of conscripts sent in human waves against Ukrainian lines.
On the Ukrainian side, losses are thought to have been smaller, but it has still been by far the most costly battle fought in the year-long war, and it appears that Ukraine’s defenders are finally running out of time and space.
According to a report from Reuters, Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, described the situation as “critical,” with fighting going on “round the clock.”
“They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every meter of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy,” he told a Ukrainian radio station.
“We need as much ammunition as possible. There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.”
Although officially Ukraine says Bakhmut is holding, there are signs that its forces could be preparing to withdraw. The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit that has been fighting in Bakhmut for almost four months said in a video posted on social media that it had been ordered to pull out immediately, without any reason being given.
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