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The cost of winning Bakhmut


WORLD Radio - The cost of winning Bakhmut

Russian mercenary group leader calls the Kremlin to task for high casualty counts

In this handout image taken from a video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, May 26, 2023, head of Wagner Group military company Yevgeny Prigozhin, centre, visits a rear camp of a Wagner unit at an undisclosed location. Prigozhin Press Service via Associated Press

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Up next: the battle for Bakhmut and an internal battle between Russian military commanders.

The fight for control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has now lasted for the better part of a year. The Kremlin claims that fight is finally over, and that Moscow is victorious.

But leaders in Kyiv say that while Russia has succeeded in reducing the city to ruins, it has not entirely conquered Bakhmut, and that the fight rages on.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Doing the bulk of that fighting for Russia is a mercenary army called the Wagner Group. Its leader is Yevgeny Prigozhin. He says some 20,000 Wagner fighters have been killed claiming Bakhmut. And the group is now reportedly in the process of transferring its gains to the Russian army.

Prigozhin has been highly critical of Russian army commanders, calling them incompetent. And he warned that if Russians continue to see their sons coming back in caskets, while Russia’s elites and their children are shielded from the violence, then they should expect political turmoil, even maybe a full-on revolution.

How will that affect the war in Ukraine?

Joining us now to talk about it is Bradley Bowman. He is a former congressional affairs officer on the Army staff in the Pentagon. And he’s served as a top national security adviser to members of the U.S. Senate.

REICHARD: Bradley, good morning!


REICHARD: First of all, Bradley, a basic question: What exactly is the Wagner group and its role been in the war, specifically in Bakhmut?

BOWMAN: The Wagner Group is a Russian mercenary organization or a private military force. And the Kremlin has used the Wagner group to advance Russian foreign policy objectives, kind of while hiding behind a thin veil of deniability, at least in the past. You know, the Wagner Group is known for widespread and systematic abuses of human rights. It's been sanctioned by the Department of the Treasury. It first emerged in 2014 with Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimea, and since then, we've seen Wagner [mercy] mercenaries showing up and generally doing bad things in Syria, in numerous countries in Africa, including Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. So in Ukraine, as the Russian military floundered after the the unprovoked invasion that Putin launched last year, he increasingly turned to Prigozhin and the Wagner Group for manpower and Battlefield success. And so initially, in the early days, the Wagner Group consisted largely of Russian military veterans, but as many of them had been killed the Wagner Group has turned increasingly to prisoners, and often to individuals with little or no training, sending them to the front, as they did in Bakhmut, in human waves, essentially as cannon fodder. And that approach has helped grind down Ukrainian opposition at Bakhmut, admittedly at an extraordinary cost, and the Russian capture of Bakhmut is, I would say, a notable symbolic victory for the Kremlin, and would likely not have happened if it weren't for the role of Wagner.

REICHARD: Fighting has raged in Bakhmut for a long time now. What is the significance of that city in eastern Ukraine?

BOWMAN: if you and I were to make a list of Ukrainian cities that have significant military strategic value, Bakhmut would not be on the top 10 of that list. It's not a significant transportation hub. The capture of it doesn't necessarily facilitate follow on operations given nearby terrain and other factors, you know, but after Putin and the Russians military's failure to take Kyiv early last year, and Russian setbacks and Kharkiv and Herson you know, the Kremlin, really, Morton by Kremlin, I mean, Putin downsized ambitions in Ukraine, and put a lot of priority on the Donbass region, which includes the provinces of Luhansk, and Donetsk, which is where Bakhmut sits. So there's no doubt that Putin would love to seize full control of Luhansk into Nasca and taking Bakhmut as part of that. But you know, after repeated failures last year, he really needed a victory, even if a modest symbolic one, like capturing a city of Bakhmut, a town originally of about 70,000 people and a victory there could provide that. So while the city does not have major military strategic value, it has really taken on important symbolic or political significance, because both Kyiv and Moscow decided to take stands there and have thrown extraordinary numbers of troops and extraordinary amounts of war material into the fight. So in short, you know, the, the political privatization and the decision to pour men and material into the fight and Bakhmut, combined with the nature of urban warfare and the relative strengths of the two sides really helps explain, I think, why the battle there took so long but to put it in perspective, you know, Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said a few days ago, that the Pentagon doesn't assess that it's a strategic gain for the Kremlin, and that Russian forces, as you said, paid a huge price in terms of lies and capability, which may create opportunities elsewhere. So short, Russia has captured Bakhmut, you know, it may be a modest symbolic victory for the Kremlin, and especially for Wagner and for Prigozhin. But that success has come a great cost.

REICHARD: What do you think Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent comments reveal? “This divide can end as in 1917 with a revolution.”

BOWMAN: Yeah, you know, my goodness, that's pretty stark language coming from a Russian leader. That's not the norm you I'm not I'm not a Russian domestic political expert, but people who are suggest that that's pretty unusual. You know, we've we've seen, not only a battle, obviously, between Ukrainians and Russians, but we've seen a battle for credit, resources and credibility between Prigozhin and the Wagner group versus the Russian military and Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, and Valery Gerasimov the Russians top general. And in autocratic Russia, this is not a normal thing to see such public infighting and criticisms above leading figures, and really some criticisms of Prigozhin regarding the whole war effort which really was launched by Vladimir Putin. I don't think he would be doing this if he didn't have Putin's permission. But, you know, he's shown himself frankly, to be an effective information warfare street brawler, which is not surprising, honestly, given his background, and he's often employed, expletive ridden tirades and ad hominem attacks, and often standing in front of dead Wagner Group mercenaries using them as props, which is pretty deplorable. But militarily, I would say, just quickly, this all makes the Russian ground forces look decidedly subpar. You know, one of the key principles of warfare is unity of command. And what we've seen in the struggle between Wagner and the Russian military is the antithesis of unity command, and that really reduces their tactical, operational and strategic effectiveness.

REICHARD: Next moves. We’ve been hearing for some time about an expected major Ukrainian counteroffensive. That hasn’t materialized. What’s the status of that and what is Ukraine’s next move?

BOWMAN: No, you're exactly right. We've been Ukrainians in the United States and our allies in Europe have been talking about this counter offensive for a long time. I think there's some concern, you know, that if Ukraine didn't show additional tangible battlefield success, that support in the West might wane. And so there's been a little bit of a, you know, checks in the mail dynamic. But I'd say also, from a Ukrainian perspective, you know, you have Russia, depleting finite manpower, and material resources and Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians have taken a big toll, no doubt. But there, there is some argument for why it's in Ukraine's advantage to delay the counter offensive, because while the US has delivered extraordinary amount of amounts of equipment, as have some of our European allies, so much of that hasn't arrived yet, so that the longer they can wait, the more they get this advanced Western and primarily American military equipment, which is clearly superior to that of Russia. So Russia has huge stores of older equipment, but Ukraine slowly but surely, is getting more and more significant quantities of advanced Western equipment. So the more of that equipment, that Zelenski has, and the better trained his troops are, which also takes time, the more effective that counter-offensive will be. So, you know, I would have predicted that we would have seen more by now. But I certainly understand the motive for delaying as much as possible on the from the from Kiev’s perspective.

REICHARD: Bradley, do you see some sort of conceivable resolution that might bring this war to an end?

BOWMAN: You know, I like to say that I do. But I don't. You know, Putin could end this war tomorrow by ordering invading Russians too. leave Ukraine, but I don't see any indication that is going to do it. So it may be that this war in Ukraine will continue in some form until Putin is no longer in power or passes away. If true, you know, then that's particularly tragedy because of the suffering and loss of life among Ukrainians and Russians. I hope that we're in soon. But support for Ukraine will simply give Putin ending support for hey this is going on too long, we should pull our support. Well, that would simply give Putin a victory and invite more aggression. And we know that other authoritarian bullies in Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang are watching and wondering whether Washington has the staying power to stick with Ukraine, and based on what they conclude about that assessment will likely determine whether they decide to accomplish their political objectives of military force as well. So I see support for Ukraine as a wise investment, not charity, and I think we would withhold it or reduce it at our own peril.

REICHARD: Bradley Bowman is senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bradley, always a pleasure to speak with you.

BOWMAN: Thank you so much.

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