A drone image of the destruction at Bakhmut, taken during embedment by the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade. The leader of the Wagner military group said his forces began withdrawing from the city on Thursday. Source: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
The capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut by the Wagner paramilitary group has given Moscow a rare and costly victory. But it also exposed the Russian army’s reliance on a brutal mercenary force commanded by an unpredictable leader.
That leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, announced Thursday that Wagner troops would begin withdrawing from Bakhmut, raising questions about whether the Russian military can hold the city, especially if Ukraine begins its long-awaited counter-offensive.
“Now the Russian General Staff must find enough reserves to fill the gap that has been created,” Dmitri Kuznets, a war analyst at Meduza, a Russian news website, responded to written questions. “This is in addition to repelling the Ukrainian offensive, which will also require a significant number of reserves.”
Mr Prigozhin said on Thursday that his fighters would be “resting and preparing” before being given “a new assignment” in Ukraine. It is not clear how many Wagner troops remain in Bachmut.
American officials estimated in December that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 10,000 experienced volunteers and 40,000 former prisoners who were granted pardons in exchange for military service.
For many supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner Group, with its rigorous discipline and agile decision-making, has become a model of what the cumbersome bureaucracy-plagued Russian army should look like.
Mr. Prigozhin has repeatedly criticized Russia’s military leadership. But Wagner and the Russian army are also interdependent. While Mr. Prigozhin has some of the best assault troops fighting on the Russian side, the Ministry of Defense has far more stockpiles of weapons, which has greatly frustrated Mr. Prigozhin of late.
In Ukraine, the Wagner group sometimes served as a backup force for Russia, going into battle when the situation seemed desperate. Weeks after the Russian invasion, Wagner troops helped capture the eastern town of Popasna, eventually enabling Russia to advance further into the Donbass region. And Wagner’s grueling, bloody campaign at Bakhmut also freed up regular Russian forces to focus on other things, including training additional troops and strengthening defenses.
Mr Kuznets said if Wagner troops were deployed to Ukraine, they would likely be sent to areas around Bakhmut or southern Ukraine, an area that could be the focus of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Although the Russian military leadership might prefer not to rely on Wagner’s help again, he said Moscow’s lack of sufficient troops made Wagner’s eventual transfer to Ukraine “inevitable”.