Russian troops are joining Wagner mercenaries in grinding, high-casualty push for Ukraine's Bakhmut
Russian conventional forces have entered the long, bloody battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, either replacing or augmenting the Wagner private mercenaries that have been fighting to capture the now-ravaged town since July. "The enemy continues to suffer great losses," Ukraine's armed forces said Tuesday, reporting they killed 850 Russian soldiers in the previous 24 hours. But Ukrainian commanders also say they are struggling to hold Bakhmut amid the waves of charging foot soldiers.
More than 4,100 Wagner soldiers have been killed and another 10,000 wounded, a U.S. official estimated in early January, including than 1,000 dead near Bakhmut from late November to early December. Many of the Wagner frontline troops were recruited from Russian prisons.
"Previously, the assaults were carried out first by convicts, followed by more 'elite' Wagner units, but now airborne units have also joined the fight," Maksym Zhorin, a former co-commander of Ukraine's Azov regiment, wrote on Telegram. "Wagner's troops are forced to advance on foot, while Russian paratroopers have armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles," he added. "Another difference is that for some reason regular troops are less willing to die than Wagner's men. That is why they act a little more cautiously. But they are still dying, just not in such huge numbers."
Ukraine is suffering heavy losses in Bakhmut, too. "Manpower is less of a Russian problem and, in some ways, more of a Ukrainian problem, not only because the casualties are painful," Lawrence Freedman, a professor emeritus of war studies at King's College London, tells The Associated Press, but they're also often "Ukraine's best troops." He added that losing Bakhmut would give Russia a tactical boost, not a decisive victory.
Bakhmut isn't in imminent danger of falling to Russian forces, "although the Ukrainian command may choose to withdraw rather than risk unacceptable losses," ISW assessed Tuesday night. "It is extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces will be able to conduct a surprise encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut."
And if Russia does take Bakhmut, they'll get a bombed-out ghost city, not the quaint town of 80,000 known for its sparkling wines produced in historic underground caves, AP reports. "It's hell on earth right now," said Ukrainian soldier Petro Voloschenko, who has been defending Bakhmut since August. "Bakhmut is the heart of Ukraine, and the future peace of those cities that are no longer under occupation depends on the rhythm with which it beats."