Wagner forces could have lost a staggering 40,000 men in their assault on Bakhmut, according to a leading Russian nationalist and critic of Putin’s war in Ukraine. After almost a year of intense fighting, Russia’s Ministry of Defence last week finally declared it had captured the Donbas city. The city has been the scene of the bloodiest and deadliest urban fighting in Europe since World War 2, claiming tens of thousands of lives on both sides.
Months of almost constant Russian bombardment have reduced Bakhmut’s leafy streets and apartment buildings to an urban wasteland.
The destruction has been so severe, that it has been compared to Aleppo, the Syrian city that was razed to the ground during that country’s civil war.
Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has admitted that his fighters suffered enormous casualties – saying 20,000 had been killed in action.
Of these, ten thousand were conscripted convicts, while the remaining half were made up of professionally contracted soldiers.
The unusual frank admission by Putin’s close ally was immediately picked up by Russia’s nationalist pro-war faction.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian FSB officer who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, suggested Prigozhin was under-reporting the number of deaths.
The army veteran estimated the real losses were probably 1.5 times higher than what the Wagner leader had declared.
He pointed out that of the 50,000 recruits Wagner received from prisons, 10,000 died in action and 26,000 reportedly received pardons and returned to Russia, leaving 14,000 prison recruits unaccounted for.
Girkin, who helped organise pro-Kremlin militias in the Donbas in 2014, suggested that a large portion of these 14,000 may have also been killed in action.
He estimated that Wagner has likely suffered more than 40,000 killed in action.
In a blistering attack on the 61-year-old militia leader, the former Russian officer told him to “keep his mouth shut” and to stop talking about “wild losses for a very insignificant result”.
He added: “Disrespectful Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] constantly accuses the Russian Ministry of Defense of various kinds of fraud and lies.
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“But he lies like a grey gelding. And he accuses Russian commanders of doing precisely that which he has done.”
(The Russian phrase “to lie like a grey gelding” denotes someone who shamelessly tells porkies.)
Putin became obsessed with seizing Bakhmut, despite many experts questioning its strategic value in the wider war.
Some military analysts have branded the capture of the Donbas city as a pyrrhic victory that has served to seriously deplete the Kremlin’s military resources ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukraine’s courageous and prolonged defence of the city may also have scuppered Russia’s ability to seize more territory in the region in the near future.
Analysts say that the Kremlin has lost so much in its attempts to secure Bakhmut that it seems unlikely its troops will be able to marshal new resources to mount successful battles on the same scale elsewhere in the area.
To compound matters, Prigozhin announced on Thursday he was pulling out his troops and handing over the city to regular Russian units
This could leave Russian soldiers in the city exposed and vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks.
Kyiv’s troops have secured territory on the city’s outskirts in recent weeks and are preparing for a broader offensive elsewhere along the 600-mile front line.
The Ukrainian military may also be looking to exploit any weaknesses that emerge as Russia rotates its troops.