On March 23rd Wagner chief Yevgenii Prigozhin gave a video briefing on the operational situation around Bakhmut, where up to 20,000 Ukrainian troops are in operational encirclement by Russian Wagner and some regular troops(https://t.me/RusologyAnd/1009). He called the situation “nothing terrible” but the video briefing’s public release on Telegram channels suggests concern. He emphasized the need “to be prepared.” Noting that the temperatures have now reached 15-16 degrees Celsius and that military vehicles now can move without problem, the Ukrainians had redeployed part of their 200,000 reserve, which will be concentrated in “several places.” From north to south, there will three attacks. First, there will be an attack will be on Belgorod, which Kiev hopes to make to “trading card” presumably to pressure Russia to make concessions regarding Ukrainian territories that its forces have occupied and that Russia has annexed. Prigozhin warned that the border “should be impenetrable,” and he said he “hopes” it is. Second, a second fist will hit the Svatogo- Kremennaya bridgehead on the Liman Front to the north of Bakhmut and the Donetsk Front.
Third and most importantly, is Bakhmut and Donetsk, where there is a powerful concentration of Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut that will attempt to encircle the Russian forces that have encircled the Ukrainians inside Bakhmut. Ukraine has gathered a force of “more than 80,000 troops” for this military operation designed, according to Prigozhin, “to demoralize” Russian troops and prevent them from taking the transport hub and thus opening up the territory for further Russian advancement west towards the Dnepr. This grouping around Bakhmut is located in the area of Seversk, Slovansk, Kramatorsk, Konstantinovka, and Chasov Yar, he said. The force in this ring of cities is tasked with holding this area to prevent a Russian breakout from Bakhmut into the Ukrainian heartland leading to the Dnepr River and move out east from the city to Lisichansk, Debaltsevo and Luhansk and try to split the breakaway Donetsk Peoples Republic or DNR and the Luhansk Peoples Republic or LNR into two parts. A Ukrainian counter offensive also will begin into Zaporozhe apparently soon, it seems from Prigozhin’s presentation, that will target Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Mariupol and at the same time blockade Crimea. After that, Ukrainian forces “probably” will try to attack the Crimean Bridge attacked last year. In this way, according to Prigozhn, they will try to revert matters to the situation in 1991. One might add that this is a declared goal of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenksiy and the West.
The briefing is then continued by an officer named Simonov with the nickname ‘Bruce’ who details the Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut and describes the movement of another grouping of Ukrainian forces near the Dnepr that will strike out south to attack Zaporozhe. He also describes another attack group that will target Kherson.
Prigozhin then starts in agains, saying that it is necessary for Russia “deflate the air cushion,” apparently meaning remove bureaucratic obstacles, increase production for the front, and carry out another mobilization. He also criticized the image of the enemy being created in Russia as cowardly radicals, who run away from the fight—“it is impermissble to underestimate the opponent.”
Prigozhin and Simonov before him praise the Ukrainian fighting forces, and notes that the Ukrainian army’s commander Oleksandr Syrskiy was educated in the Soviet military and knows what he is doing. To end the special military operation (SVO) and avoid “fatigue” of years of war, Moscow must decide what borders it wants to achieve for the annexed territories, even out the frontline, and set up a powerful defense line of ten echelons. However, with the SVO’s end there will be no end to military presence in the annexed territories.
Prigozhin then talks about determining with whom Russia is fighting, NATO or Ukraine. Answering his won question, he says Ukraine and a small number of “psychopathic mercenaries.” In terms of Putin’s earlier stated goal of denazification and demilitarization, Prigozhin says that he does not know whether there are Nazis in Ukraine or not and that he never “messed” with that question and that demilitarization will be accomplished once Russia has destroyed all of Ukraine’s weapons and army personnel. He says it is not going badly, and “time will tell” if it can be completed or not. Prigozhin then notes that “Zelenskiy has heard us, children and old people have become fewer; prepared fighters there have become more of.” He closes saying that Russian forces from the south in Zaporozhe should be moved to Bakhmut to destroy the Ukrainian force massed there, emphasizing “with the full interaction with the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation. Then everything will be good.”
CONCLUSION: The Russians, unless they have been following this buildup closely and have something up their sleeve, can be pushed back, allowing the up to 20,000 Ukrainian troops trapped in Bakhmut to make a run and escape the encirclement. On the other hand, the diversion of troops from Avdeevka, likely from the Belarus border region, and even from Ugledar could accelerate Russia’s full encirclement and taking of Avdeevka. The redeployments of Ukrainian forces and Russia’s need to reinforce its gains in Bakhmut might prompt diversionary actions, or Bakhmut now might become a diversionary action to pave the way for a Ukrainian offensive on Zaporozhe (Melitiopol and Mariupol) or a Russian intervention from the north from Belarus to threaten Kiev. The last mentioned also may be prompted by the approaching March 29th deadline for Russian Orthodox priests to leave the Kievo-Pechorskaya Lavra, the once Russian Orthodox Church-affiliated shrine under the ROC-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church undergoing repressions and likely to be permanently banned by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy.
Prigozhin’s complaints about the bureaucracy and his assertion at the end about the ‘full interaction with the Defense Ministry’ seems to suggest that there is still some bad blood perhaps. The video itself may be a way of publicizing the Wagner forces’ need for sound logistics as the Battle of Bakhmut looms.
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.