Speed Reads

Ebb and Flow

Ukraine is gaining ground in Bakhmut for the 1st time in months amid Russian disarray

Ukrainian commanders, Russian military bloggers, and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin agree that Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian defensive lines outside Bakhmut and reclaimed several square miles of territory since Tuesday. But Russia's defense ministry disputed those reports Thursday night, claiming "the statements spread by individual Telegram channels about 'defense breakthroughs' in various sections of the line of contact are not true."

Before Tuesday's modest breakthrough, "Ukraine's forces had not won any ground in the fight for Bakhmut since pushing Russian forces off a key access road two months ago," The New York Times reports. Prigozhin, who has been publicly and ostentatiously feuding with Russia's defense ministry for months, stepped up his complaints and attacks in May, as a push by his paramilitary forces and Russian troops to capture Bakhmut lost momentum. Wagner fighters are battling inside Bakhmut and Russian soldiers are trying to advance on the flanks.

On Tuesday, Prigozhin claimed the Russian Army's 72nd Brigade "fled and exposed a front" more than a mile wide that his Wagner forces had to fill. "The situation on the western flanks is developing according to the worst of the predicted scenarios," he said Thursday on Telegram. "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."

"Prigozhin is a liar," Rollo, who leads the First Battalion of the 3rd Assault Brigade, told CNN on Thursday. "The first to flee were Wagner," and "actually, the unit he is badmouthing fought to the end." Rollo said at least 200 to 300 Russian soldiers were killed in his part of the battle, southwest of Bakhmut. Andriy Biletsky, commander of Ukraine's 3rd Assault Brigade, said Wednesday that two companies of Russia's 72nd Brigade were "completely destroyed," and Wagner "lost a lot," too.

Kremlin sources told Russian news outlet Meduza that Prigozhin's histrionics are putting him on thin ice, and he's blaming conventional Russian units to shift responsibility for his failed "personal promise" to capture Bakhmut, the Institute for the Study of War think tank reported Thursday night.

"Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localized counterattacks near Bakhmut," ISW assessed, and the contradictory responses from the Russia's defense ministry and Prigozhin "are reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that Ukraine is holding off on launching its counteroffensive, but Prigozhin claimed "Zelensky is lying," and "the counteroffensive is in full swing" around Bakhmut. 

The deployment of "low-quality Russian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut" suggests Russia has largely given up on encircling Bakhmut, even if Prigozhin hasn't, ISW says. But "the inability of these units to fulfill even this limited mission indicates that Russian flanks in Bakhmut and other similarly-manned areas of the front are likely vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks."