Russia’s shadow army boss has tried to explain away his mercenary group’s failure to take the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut by claiming Ukraine has “500 lines of defense” there.
Ukraine’s military has fended off a Russian takeover there during months of brutal battles against the notorious mercenaries. In the face of relentless Russian attacks, the city has gained huge symbolic significance.
While pro-Kremlin pundits and Prigozhin himself have for weeks taunted Ukrainians with threats that Bakhmut will soon fall to Russia, the Wagner boss now appears to be acknowledging what Western experts and British intelligence have already predicted: Russia is unlikely to achieve any major wins in the area any time soon.
“It’s a fortress in every home,” Prigozhin said in video published by RIA Novosti. “The guys lock horns for every home, sometimes not just for one day. Sometimes for weeks over one home. They take one home, they take a second, a third,” Prigozhin said.
But they still can’t break through defenses.
“To say [there are] 500 [lines of defense] would probably not be a mistake. Every 10 meters there is a line of defense,” Prigozhin said while meeting with his mercenaries.
One of the men under his command can be heard complaining in the footage that they don’t have enough equipment or weapons to push further into Bakhmut.
The Wagner boss’ admission comes after Western intelligence noted that the manpower behind Russian attacks in the area had been thinning out. The British Ministry of Defense noted in its latest assessment on Tuesday that while Russia has “increased the frequency” of attacks around Bakhmut, “many of these operations were poorly supported.”
A Ukrainian soldier near Bakhmut also says it seems the Russian side is “running out” of prison inmates to send to the frontline.
In an interview with Radio New Times, Yevgeny Oropai said Russian troops seem to be “out of breath” after unsuccessfully attempting to storm Ukrainian positions around the New Year holiday, leaving Wagner with “heavy losses.”
But they’re also learning from their own mistakes and not “mindlessly” carrying out so many offensives anymore, he said.
Both sides have suffered staggering losses in and around the city, leading even some pro-Kremlin figures to question whether Russia’s offensive there was worth the “senseless meat grinder” it had created for them.
But the city appeared to take on heightened significance for Moscow after a series of crushing losses elsewhere saw Russians retreat from territories Putin had proudly declared to be part of Russia. Bakhmut, seen in some ways as Russia’s “last stand” after Ukraine took back Kharkiv and Kherson, was also part of the Donbas region Putin had dubbed a priority after the Kremlin’s failure to take Kyiv.
Prigozhin, who for months has boasted that his guys are more ruthless and able to do what ordinary Russians troops cannot, released a series of attention-seeking propaganda videos said to be from Bakhmut in late December, in which he ordered his mercenaries to fire off weapons and taunted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with invitations to meet on the front line.
“Maybe by the evening we’ll be able to meet,” he said. “I’m sitting, waiting for you near Bakhmut.”
Days later, however, Russian airborne troops were sent to the area to prop up Wagner’s operations—a move widely seen as evidence that all was not going according to plan for Russia’s tough-talking shadow army boss.