According to newly declassified intelligence, more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and 80,000 wounded in the ongoing fighting in Ukraine since December. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed these figures, stating that half of the dead were from the Wagner mercenary company, who have been attacking the eastern Bakhmut city. Russia has been attempting to take the small city in a grinding war of attrition for the past year, and Moscow currently holds most of Bakhmut. However, Ukrainian troops still control a small portion of the city in the west.
This fierce battle has taken on huge symbolic importance for both sides, with Ukrainian officials claiming that they are using it to wear down Russia’s reserves and kill as many of their troops as possible. “Russia’s attempt at an offensive in the Donbas [region] largely through Bakhmut has failed,” Mr Kirby told reporters. “Russia has been unable to seize any real strategic and significant territory. We estimate that Russia has suffered more than 100,000 casualties, including over 20,000 killed in action.” He added that he was not giving estimates of Ukrainian casualties because “they are the victims here. Russia is the aggressor.”
The capture of Bakhmut would bring Russia slightly closer to its goal of controlling the whole of Donetsk region, one of four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine annexed by Russia last September following referendums widely condemned outside Russia as a sham. However, analysts say that Bakhmut has little strategic value, but it has become a focal point for Russian commanders who have struggled to deliver any positive news to the Kremlin.
The Wagner mercenary group has taken center stage in the Russian assault on Bakhmut, with its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, staking his reputation and that of his private army on seizing the city. In a rare in-depth interview to a prominent Russian war blogger, he vowed to withdraw Wagner fighters if they were not provided with much-needed ammunition by the Russian defense ministry. Wagner fighters could be redeployed to Mali, he warned. He has often clashed with Russia’s defense ministry during the war, accusing officials of not providing his fighters with enough support.
Mr. Prigozhin also called upon the Russian media and military leadership to “stop lying to the Russian population” ahead of an expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive. “We need to stop lying to the Russian population, telling them everything is all right,” he said. He praised the Ukrainian military’s “good, correct military operations” and command.
A top Ukrainian general said on Monday that counterattacks had ousted Russian forces from some positions in Bakhmut, but the situation remained “difficult”. New Russian units, including paratroopers and fighters from Wagner, are being “constantly thrown into battle” despite taking heavy losses, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Telegram. “But the enemy is unable to take control of the city,” he said.