When Ukrainian forces launched twin counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine from late August and early September, Russian and separatist troops across the country surrendered, retreated or died on the spot.
There was one major exception. Russian fighters from notorious mercenary firm The Wagner Group defied odds and baffled observers, as they not only held their ground around the free town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, 25 miles southwest of Russian-occupied Severodonetsk, they continued to attack.
Analysts concluded that Wagner’s assaults on Bakhmut – which did not gain much traction, despite Russian claims to the contrary – were the company’s way of creating a narrative. That it was the only Russian force still capable of defeating the Ukrainians.
The idea, apparently, was for Wagner to trade his battlefield reputation for political influence in Moscow. Wagner’s financier Yevgeny Prigozhin “continues to gain power and establishes a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces”. Explain the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.
This narrative has now become a farce. Last week, the mercenaries made a last drastic attempt to seize Bakhmut and eventually gained a few square kilometers of the shell-riddled landscape. The enemy “does not stop trying to carry out offensive actions in the Bakhmut”, the Ukrainian general staff Noted.
But a seasoned Ukrainian brigade intervened. Now Wagner is retreating, leaving behind piles of corpses. A pitched battle for a cement plant on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut marked a turning point. Ukrainian troops took control of the factory on or before Monday.
To be clear, Wagner is not alone in the Bakhmut sector. Russian regulars and pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk People’s Republic, just south of Bakhmut, have also claimed what little ground Kremlin forces seized around the city from August.
But it was evident that Wagner’s fighters were instrumental in the modest gains the Russians made around Bakhmut. Wagner has the advantage of experience in an increasingly deprived Russian military enterprise.
The mercenary company hired thousands of Russian veterans, even recruit a daredevil pilot who was expelled from the Russian Air Force for stealing and crashing a Su-27 in 2012. Meanwhile, last month, the Russian military was in dire need of manpower that it began recruiting unfit middle-aged men, sometimes seizing them from the street.
Wagner’s relatively high level of experience compared to other Russian forces could not save him when the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade arrived in Bakhmut from Izium, 80 km to the northwest. The 93rd MB is not the brightest of the dozens of Ukrainian frontline brigades, but it is one of the most brutally effective.
The 93rd MB with its five tank and infantry battalions – in total several thousand troops and a hundred or more armored vehicles, including tanks – fought and endured some of the bloodiest battles of the Russian War of eight months against Ukraine.
At the end of March, the 93rd MB led one of the first major counterattacks around Kharkiv, the most vulnerable of Ukraine’s major cities. In the process, the 93rd MB encountered the Russian 4th Guards Tank Division in the town of Trostianets, 80 km north of Kharkiv.
Soldiers of the 93rd MB in their BMP and BTR combat vehicles, equipped with Javelin anti-tank missiles and supported by T-64 and T-80 tanks and standard drones, crippled the Russian division.
Five months later, in early August, the 93rd MB launched another counterattack, this time around Mazanivka southwest of Izium. The brigade liberated a few settlements, effectively foreshadowing the wider Ukrainian counter-offensive that would begin three weeks later.
In early September, a dozen eager Ukrainian brigades broke through Russian lines around Kharkiv, routing exhausted Russian forces and quickly liberating a thousand square kilometers of northeastern Ukraine. The 93rd MB helped liberate Izium then pivoted south towards Bakhmut. By October, the brigade held the northern half of the sector, while the Ukrainian 58th Motorized Brigade held the southern half.
The 58th MB is a lighter formation than the 93rd MB. How the two brigades, the heavier and the lighter, coordinated their operations is not entirely clear. It is possible that the 58th MB deflected Wagner’s repeated assaults, helping to wear down the mercenaries before their final, and ultimately doomed, attack last week.
In any case, it seems that the 93rd MB is the decisive force in the current battle. On or about Friday, the 93rd MB counter-attacked with its tanks, including a famous T-80 that the brigade captured from the Russian army.
Wagner collapsed. It had taken the mercenaries months to seize the intersection of the M03 and M06 highways just east of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians retook the intersection in just two days of fighting. Graphic videos of the battle depict piles of dead mercenaries.
‘Near Bakhmut, fighting remains intense and dynamic,’ an unnamed US defense official said told reporters on Monday. How far the 93rd MB can advance as Wagner retreats may depend more on the weather than on the resistance Russian forces can offer.
The beginning of winter in Ukraine is wet and muddy. Mud is evident in recent photos of the Battle of Bakhmut.
This mud tends to slow down or even stop military operations in Ukraine in November and December. Operations can resume once the ground freezes after the new year. Time might slow the advance of the 93rd MB and spare Wagner further humiliation.