Ukraine counterattack will take aim at “exhausted” Wagner troops: Commander

The military hotbed of Bakhmut will remain a key strategic location in the Russia-Ukraine war, according to a high-ranking Ukrainian official.

Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said Thursday that a counteroffensive against “exhausted” Russian forces near Bakhmut would soon occur.

Bakhmut has been inundated with Ukrainian and Russian forces, as well as mercenaries from the paramilitary Wagner Group, since last summer in the 13-month war. Soldiers on the frontlines reportedly are at accelerated risks of death there compared to other regions.

“The aggressor has not given up hope of taking Bakhmut at all costs despite losses in manpower and equipment,” Syrsky said, according to The Moscow Times, an independent English-language publication based in Amsterdam. “Russia’s main fighting force on this front is the Wagner mercenary group. Sparing nothing, they are losing significant strength and becoming exhausted. Very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity, like we did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk.”

Ukrainian servicemen head toward Bakhmut in a BMP infantry fighting vehicle, in eastern Ukraine, on March 22, 2023. A Ukrainian ground forces commander said Thursday that the city might be the site of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Wagner, a private military company headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might be rethinking its involvement in the “meat grinder” of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin has had numerous public squabbles with Russian military officials, using Telegram and other means to call out the Russian Defense Ministry, accusing it of cutting off his soldiers’ ammunition and other supplies.

In February, Prigozhin accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov of attempting to “destroy” the Wagner Group, equating their supposed actions with “high treason.”

Yet this week, Prigozhin requested that the Kremlin “take all necessary measures to prevent the cutting off of the Wagner troops from the main forces of Russia’s army. It would lead to “negative military consequences,” he added.

Bloomberg reported Thursday that because Russia’s mission in Bakhmut has remaining incomplete after many months, compounded by the conflicts with military personnel, Prigozhin might be refocusing his group’s efforts in Africa.

Mercenaries have reportedly attempted to gain an upper hand in recent weeks over commodities like gold and diamonds in the Central African Republic, leading to “heavy casualties.”

On Wednesday, Prigozhin wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offering to finance a joint security project in Africa called “Wagner. Safe Africa,” Turkish state-run media outlet Anadolu Agency reported.

Prigozhin reportedly rebuked Blinken’s past accusations that Wagner sows “violence and instability” in Africa, adding that the U.S. and other countries are “actively trying to divide the African pie” while the Wagner Group remains “busy” in Ukraine.

“Therefore, I suggest that you support the efforts of PMC Wagner in ensuring security in Africa and finance a new Wagner project named ‘Wagner. Safe Africa’ where you can become one of the investors of the project and thereby save the resources of U.S. taxpayers,” Prigozhin wrote.

Maria Popova, associate professor of political science at McGill University, told Newsweek that the Russian Defense Ministry now “seems to be on the verge of winning” its battle with Wagner and Prigozhin, potentially providing a lane for Ukrainian armed forces to take advantage.

“The ramification of Prigozhin’s hinted withdrawal from Ukraine to focus on Africa is that a breakthrough in Bakhmut may well be in the cards for AFU [Armed Forced of Ukraine],” Popova said. “It is also possible that Ukraine is signaling continued focus on Bakhmut, but a counteroffensive in another part of the front is in the offing.

“AFU has had the initiative in the war for a while now and the leadership has been highly competent in making the most of it, so I expect them to continue to make wise decisions.”

Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries for comment.

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