In a rare moment of agreement, the Ukrainian military and Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of Russia’s notorious private military company the Wagner Group, both claim that Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade has been defeated near Bakhmut.
On Tuesday, Prigozhin accused the brigade of abandoning its position, according to Reuters. In a video, Prigozhin claimed: “Our army is fleeing. The 72nd Brigade f–ked up around three square kilometers this morning, where I had lost around 500 men.”
Ukraine’s Third Separate Assault Brigade issued a statement afterward that said: “It’s official. Prigozhin’s report about the flight of Russia’s 72nd Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade from near Bakhmut and the ‘500 corpses’ of Russians left behind is true.”
The Ukrainians also released video footage that purportedly shows Russian troops with the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade running from advancing Ukrainian forces.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country, later said the brigade had suffered serious losses but was still intact.
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“Unfortunately, they have not destroyed the whole [Russian] brigade yet, two companies have been seriously damaged there,” Cherevatyi said.
The Defense Department is monitoring the situation at Bakhmut closely, but it cannot confirm reports that Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade has retreated, said Marine Lt. Col. Garron Garn, a Pentagon spokesman.
“However, Wagner and Russian forces could end this war today by withdrawing their forces from Ukraine and ceasing this illegal invasion,” Garn told Task & Purpose.
There are currently three slightly competing narratives from the Ukrainians and Prizoghin about what happened to Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade: It was destroyed; it broke and ran; or the brigade’s 6th and 8th companies suffered heavy losses, but the brigade was not destroyed, said Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst with the Institute for the Study of War think in Washington, D.C.
“What likely happened is the middle ground of all of these claims: Ukrainians conducted a limited counterattack against the positions of a very, very degraded and probably weak and exhausted 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade – partially destroyed them and partially forced them to withdraw,” Hird told Task & Purpose.
Nominally, Russian brigades are supposed to consist of at least 2,000 soldiers, but Hird said the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade is likely severely understrength and may have already suffered heavy losses from conducting attritional assaults southwest of Bakhmut.
Although Ukrainian military commander Andriy Biletsky has claimed Ukrainian forces have advanced 2.6 kilometers along a 3-kilometer front line as a result of the attack on Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, there is no way to independently confirm whether the brigade fell back that far, Hird said.
“The corresponding video that was posted by the Third Brigade was geolocated to an area southwest of Bakhmut, and that’s the only visual confirmation we have,” Hird said. “We don’t have visual confirmation of elements of the brigade falling back or of their losses, etc.”
The battle of Bakhmut has become a test of wills between the Ukrainians, costing thousands of lives on both sides. Wagner has sent prisoners turned mercenaries on suicidal assaults against Ukrainian positions. Even though Russia controls most of Bakhmut, Ukraine refuses to abandon the city.
While it is too early to tell how far the Ukrainians have advanced recently, the counterattack on Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade does not change the tactical situation in Bakhmut, Hird said.
The battle has been a test for Prigozhin’s influence over Russian President Vladimir Putin, said retired Navy Capt. Steven Horrell, of the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank in Washington, D.C.
Prigozhin’s comments about the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade retreating are illustrative of his intense personal rivalry with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Gen. Valery Gerasimov, and Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Horrell told Task & Purpose.
“There’s a tug of war of war for influence, obviously, and political clout, but also for the resources – the resources just to fight the war, but also in the sense of Prigozhin and Wagner, it’s about maximizing their profit from the war,” Horrell said. “For him, for Wagner, losing lives is losing resources and losing money.”
Wagner has worked closely with the Russian military in the past, but there has not been any overall command and control system for both Russian troops and mercenaries in the Ukraine war, said Molly Dunigan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
The Kremlin may have pitted Wagner and the Russian military against each other to see which one can operate more effectively in Ukraine, Dunigan told Task & Purpose.
“The other thing that could be happening here is that Prigozhin is realizing that, politically, he is going to be at a loss just because of the number of lives that are being lost,” Dunigan said. “He’s trying to get ahead of this with some plausible deniability on his part.”
One reason why Prigozhin is increasingly making public statements is that his influence with Putin is fading, said Ivan Fomin, Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Since February, Wagner has been prevented from recruiting prisoners as mercenaries and Russian government agencies now block his phone number.
“Prigozhin was arguably at the height of his influence last summer when Putin anticipated that the Wagner Group, under Prigozhin’s leadership, could take under control significant parts of Ukrainian territories, thereby helping the Kremlin to avoid declaring a military mobilization,”Fomin said. “However, these hopes were unfulfilled, which is likely a factor in Prigozhin’s current decline.”
The apparent retreat of Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade comes as Ukraine is expected to launch an offensive this spring elsewhere against Russian forces.
Much like the situation on the Eastern Front shortly before the 1943 battle of Kursk, the Russians don’t know where the Ukrainian offensive will take place, said Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
Prigozhin’s latest comments about the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade may be an act of theater that distracts Western media from the knowns and unknowns about the coming offensive, Howard said.
“What we don’t know is the status of Russian forces behind Bakhmut and the forces they have assembled for Ukraine’s planned counter-offensive,” Howard said. “Because of what Prigozhin is saying, we are focusing on this and excluding discussion about what the Russians are planning and doing.”
“The other known is that the Russians are extensively building fortifications awaiting the counter-offensive,” Howard continued. “They in turn have their own counter-offensive force in waiting and we need to be aware of this. Both sides have read the same Soviet tactical books and know what the other might do. So, both sides are probing and waiting for the first move.”
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