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Russia controls Bakhmut, for now, but holding it will be difficult

An apartment building destroyed by Russian forces in Bakhmut, Ukraine, in February. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russia now effectively controls Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. But it is unclear that Moscow’s disjointed forces will be able to hold the decimated city amid a Ukrainian counterattack that has already begun.

For now, Russia appears to control what’s left of the city, once home to some 70,000 people, though Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, insisted Tuesday that Kyiv’s troops still held small positions on Bakhmut’s southwestern edge and were fighting Russian forces on the outskirts.

In any case, Russia’s victory celebration may be brief, military analysts said, with Bakhmut potentially following the fate of Izyum, Lyman, Kherson and other cities occupied by Russia only to be retaken by Ukraine. Moscow’s fighting forces are stretched thin after months of significant losses and riven by internal rivalries.

“The story of Bakhmut is not yet finished. There are a lot of Ukrainian forces that are still on the outskirts, and Russia’s position in Ukraine is not particularly stable right now,” said Dara Massicot, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. “Right now, the situation is they do control it, but this is not set in stone.”

Before-and-after images of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

The next two to three weeks will be crucial for Moscow’s claim to Bakhmut, Massicot noted, as Russia allocates forces to defend against a widely expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. Holding the city — which is of limited strategic importance but is hugely symbolic for both sides — would require Moscow to pull reinforcements from previously occupied territories, possibly creating new areas of vulnerability.

“The Russians don’t exactly know where the counteroffensive is going to start, and based on where the majority of their forces are, they seem particularly concerned about Zaporizhzhia and the land bridge being cut,” Massicot said, referring to the land bridge Russia established earlier in the war to link Crimea, illegally annexed in 2014, to mainland Russia.

“So it’s going to be a balancing act between moving additional assets into place around Bakhmut and making sure that their ability to reinforce other areas of the front if the counteroffensive begins in a different place remains intact,” she said.

Another potential curveball is the withdrawal of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who led the onslaught against Bakhmut for months but whose founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, announced Sunday that his soldiers would start withdrawing Thursday.

“From June 1, not a single Wagner fighter will be at the front until we undergo reorganization, re-equipment and additional training,” Prigozhin said.

Wagner has served as the main assault force near Bakhmut since fighting intensified in the fall, sending waves of poorly trained men — mainly recruited convicts with little to no military experience — to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. Telegram channels close to Wagner showed the group awarding its own medals to those who took part in “the Bakhmut meat grinder.”

About 10,000 Wagner fighters, mostly prisoners, have been killed in the Bakhmut region since the end of last year, with thousands more injured, according to the most recent U.S. estimates.

The U.S. calls the Wagner Group a “significant transnational criminal organization,” but it provides fighters for hire worldwide — with Kremlin approval. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Prigozhin’s claims of withdrawal were met with skepticism by military experts. This is the third time he has vowed to pull his troops out of Bakhmut — previously threatening to abandon the city if the Russian military didn’t give his fighters more ammunition — but he has yet to follow through.

“The situation has changed as the goal Prigozhin himself declared — the capture of the city — has been completed, and no one can reproach him for not going through with it, so there is a chance they may leave,” said Ian Matveev, a Russian military analyst. “But the timing is doubtful — most likely, it will be difficult for the Russian army to find a replacement in such a short time, and Wagner won’t leave the positions empty.”

Zelensky says destroyed Bakhmut now lives ‘only in our hearts’

The Russian units closest to Bakhmut are probably not in a position to fill Wagner’s front-line role, Massicot said. They are a mix of recently mobilized men and those drafted from the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics armies, part of the ragtag separatist forces the Kremlin has been backing since 2014. These groups have been ill-equipped and poorly trained throughout the war, and have struggled at times to maintain defensive positions.

Another option for Moscow would be its airborne forces, which have fared better in the war, but committing them to Bakhmut’s defense may result in the loss of experienced troops that could be more useful elsewhere.

The initial claim that Russia had gained control of Bakhmut came from Prigozhin, who preempted an announcement from the Russian Defense Ministry, the latest example of the Wagner chief’s ongoing public battle with the country’s top military brass.

“The operation called Bakhmut meat grinder began in October in order to let the battered Russian army recover,” Prigozhin said Saturday in a nine-minute video that appeared to be filmed in the eastern parts of Bakhmut. “Thank you to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who gave us this opportunity and the high honor of protecting our motherland.”

The Defense Ministry had to follow up with a more subdued statement hours later. Prigozhin has repeatedly accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, of incompetence and treason — alleging they were intentionally depriving Wagner forces of ammunition and “stealing” their battlefield victories to claim as their own.

The Defense Ministry issued a rare public rebuttal to Prigozhin’s claims about the lack of ammunition but has ignored his bitter, profanity-laden personal attacks.

Wagner boss threatens to pull out of Bakhmut, slams Russian military

Privately, Russian military officials debated launching a public-relations campaign of their own but ultimately decided they wouldn’t stand a chance against Prigozhin’s small but vocal network of news websites and Telegram channels unless he was banned by the Kremlin from speaking out.

Along with the official Defense Ministry statement about the capture of Bakhmut came a congratulatory message from Putin, who has mostly refrained from commenting on the war’s course in recent months.

“The head of state congratulated the Wagner assault detachments, as well as all the servicemen of the units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk,” the message read, referring to Bakhmut by its Soviet-era name. “All distinguished ones will be presented for state awards.”

Putin’s first formal acknowledgment of Wagner’s contributions alongside the regular army will only add more fuel to the rivalry between the two forces, experts predicted.

“I think Putin’s statement is a recognition that both parties played a role here,” Massicot said. “That being said, there is tension between Prigozhin and the [Defense Ministry] that is still very high. … Both parties are resentful as they have to share a platform with the other for Bakhmut.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: At least two residential buildings in Moscow were hit by drones Tuesday morning. It is a rare attack deep inside Russian territory. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed without providing evidence that Ukraine was behind the drone strikes. Kyiv denied involvement.

The strikes came after Russia conducted another aerial attack on Kyiv, killing at least one person and wounding at least four people. The air raid was the 17th attack in May, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

The fight: Russia took control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, in late May. But holding the city will be difficult. The Wagner Group, responsible for the fight and victory in Bakhmut, is allegedly leaving and being replaced by the Russian army.

The upcoming counteroffensive: After a rainy few months left the ground muddy, sticky and unsuitable for heavy vehicles in southern Ukraine, temperatures are rising — and with them, the expectations of a long-awaited counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces.

The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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