The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced today (May 20) that all of Bakhmut has been taken by the Wagner forces.
He also said that on May 25 the Wagner forces will hand over control to the Russian army and pull back for rest and retraining. Some Wagner forces will be used in defensive positions that are not sent back for training and rest.
Bakhmut is a city of 75,000, at least before the war, in the Donetsk region and is strategically located. It is known as “Salt City,” which refers to the huge underground salt mines that are actually located nearby in Soledar, which fell to the Russians in late January of this year.
Bakhmut was also a major wine producer, but when Crimea was taken by the Russians, the supply of grapes coming from Crimea ended and the wine business in Bakhmut collapsed. The city is a major roadway nexus and also features important rail connections. According to recent reports, the Wagner forces were surprised to find some civilians still living in the devastated city.
Prigozhin thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin. “And thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for giving us this opportunity and the high honor of defending our homeland.” He also thanked Generals Sergei Surovikin and Mikhail Mizintsev, who “made it possible to carry out this difficult operation.”
Surovikin is known as “General Armageddon”, speaking to his controversial career. After three months of commanding Russia’s forces in Ukraine, he was removed. He served as deputy to Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and was assigned to support the Wagner forces, bringing significant urban combat skill to the group. Surovikin is famous, some would say infamous, for the battle of Idlib, in Syria, which devastated the city.
Colonel General Mikhail Mizinstev likewise was assigned to Wagner. He has been called the “Butcher of Mariupol” where he led the successful attack on that city. Previously, he played a major role in the Battle of Aleppo, Syria. Like his counterpart Surovikin, he uses mainly scorched earth tactics, with considerable success.
The role of these two top Russian generals in Wagner indicates that the group has transitioned fully from a “private” military organization to a part of the Russian armed forces, and thus follows Russian command decisions in its operations. While Prigozhin is the face of Wagner, he has no military experience.
Wagner’s tactics closely resemble the methods the Soviet Union used successfully in World War II. Bakhmut, like Mariupol, was, however, a kind of turnabout as the Russian army and Wagner stormed the cities instead of being assigned to defend them.
The fall of Bakhmut is a political victory for Prigozhin, who many believe is positioning himself to replace Putin. His rant against Putin last week, where he accused the “grandfather,” aka Putin, of being an “a**hole” still is a problem for him in the days ahead. Russian politics can be very brutal, as history shows.
There is no final accounting of losses on either side. Prigozhin praised the Ukrainians defending the city. Bakhmut’s fall came after the most heavily defended part of the city, called the Citadel, fell to Wagner forces after fierce fighting and heavy bombardment by Russian artillery.
Almost all standing structures in Bakhmut have been damaged severely or destroyed completely. The Ukrainian army actually blew up a number of buildings as they retreated so Wagner forces could not use them for firing platforms. (See brief video here on Putin’s announcement.)
It isn’t clear what next steps will be carried out by the Russian army. On the previous night, Russia carried out another large-scale bombing of Ukrainian targets and also claimed they shot down a number of HIMARS rockets and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, the Russians destroyed key bridges to Chasiv Yar, the town supplying Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut and on the Bakhmut flanks. It is possible Russian forces may go after Chasiv Yar as a staging point for a run to the Dnieper River. A lot depends on how the expected Ukrainian offensive develops.
There is still fighting on Bakhmut’s northern flank outside the city, but after some gains by the Ukrainian army, the Russians are now reversing them and retaking lost ground. The situation in the Ivanjske direction to the south of the city is less clear, although it seems the Ukrainian push has run out of steam.
While Ukrainian sources are claiming Bakhmut was unimportant, the long battle over nine months was ordered by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, reportedly against the advice of his military commanders.
There are now unconfirmed rumors circulating on Telegram Messenger, where most of the Russian “mil” bloggers operate, that Ukraine’s top general, Valerii Zaluzhny, may be dead. He has not been seen or heard from for some days.
Also strange is that Zelensky himself would run off to the G-7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan just as one of Ukraine’s most important battles concluded. There is a sense, no more than that, that there is substantial political turmoil in Kiev that could change the direction of the country and the war.
Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebryen