The savagery of a Russian ‘warlord’ sends a clear message to Moscow

Ukrainian servicemen prepare a mortar to fire at Russian troop positions, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine on December 30, 2022 (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen prepare a mortar to fire at Russian troop positions, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine on December 30, 2022 (Reuters)

The line that separates life from death in the muddy hills south of Bakhmutin the east of Ukraine, she is thin. To Yaroslav hervolsky, a soldier in a Ukrainian evacuation brigade, may be indistinguishable. For two and a half months, hervolsky he wades into the mud under artillery fire to rescue his comrades, dead or alive. The work has given him few truces. In mid-December, a successful Ukrainian advance pushed Russian forces back one kilometer beyond the city limits. However, the workload of Mr. hervolsky it was not affected, as the Ukrainians continued to suffer dozens of casualties daily. Now the Russians attack again and the corpses are piling up. “It’s hard to describe the feeling,” she says. “CForty bodies piled on top of each other. Diesel, blood and rotten meat. It’s a fucking mess, and you never know if you’ll be next”.

The front line near Bakhmuta small and tired town 70 km north of the city of Donetskis currently the most disputed sector of Ukraine. It offers little justification for the deaths of so many people, numbering in the hundreds daily if Russian casualties are included. The city is of limited strategic value, offering little more than a water source and a hub for road transport.

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Its true importance lies far away, in Moscowas a testing ground for Yevgeny Prigozhinpartner of the president Vladimir putinand the Group Wagnerhis dark mercenary army. Prigozhin has taken command of the front Bakhmut and uses it to demonstrate his own bloody vision of the future. But in Moscow Not everyone is happy, not even the military and political leaders the warlord openly criticizes.

For a long time it was not clear the degree of collaboration between Wagner and the Russian armed forces. But Wagner found a way to cooperate with the Russian military hierarchy in late autumn. According to serhiy cherevatyspokesman for the Ukrainian Eastern Command, this moment coincided with the appointment of a new operational commander, General Sergey Surovikinof hard line, whose candidacy had defended Prigozhin. Wagner it began to receive support from the regular military logistics network, the spokesman says, and even started fighting alongside elite units of the Russian regular army in strike groups. But recent setbacks near Bakhmut and problems with logistics seem to have strained the relationship again.

At the end of December, Wagner released a video showing two of its fighters attacking the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov. The soldiers, who concealed their identity with scarves but appeared to be fighting close by, Bakhmut, claimed that Russia’s top military was withholding ammunition. “We are fighting against the entire Ukrainian army, and where are you? There is only one word to describe what you are: fagot”. Loyalists condemned the outburst. But Mr. Prigozhin He publicly backed his men.

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A Ukrainian missile attack on a barracks in Makiivka60 km from Bakhmut, on New Year’s Day, has further fueled nationalist criticism of the Russian military leadership. The attack, carried out early in the morning with at least four high-precision missiles Himars supplied by the West, killed dozens of soldiers (mostly newly mobilized). Russia He has said that 89 died; Ukraine says the number is at least 400. Igor “Strelkov” Girkinthe eccentric ex-intelligence officer largely responsible for the outbreak of war in the region of Donbas in 2014, he said he had warned Russian generals about the likelihood of attacks Himars against barracks. “In principle, [los generales] they are not governable”, he barked. some in Russia have tried to blame the new recruits for their own demise, speculating that Ukraine he was able to identify the barracks because the soldiers were, against orders, using their mobile phones.

girkin has a strong following among the nationalists, but government officials Moscow are much more concerned with the continued rise of the star than Prigozhin. That concern intensified in October and November, he says. Tatyana Stanovayapolitical analyst at Moscowwhen people from the presidential administration saw that the ex-convict established a direct channel with putin. “Prigozhin is attacking government institutions with what amounts to revolutionary positions, and that scares many of them”.

Defense Minister, Sergey shoigua regular target of criticism from Wagnerseems to take little risk and has sent his own group of mercenaries, patriotto fight in the Donbass. the ukrainian spokesman cherevaty states that it is not clear the exact role that the force will play patriot. “It seems likely, however, that they were sent to counterbalance Wagner.”.

In recent speeches, putin it has underlined the primacy of the regular military leadership. But he doesn’t seem concerned about the dangers of the hardline alternative of PrigozhinHe says Stanovaya. “Putin sees him as someone capable of awakening the nation and as a representative of a strange civil society.” For now, the ex-con remains firmly in the orbit of putin. But if before putin He was considered invulnerable, the persistent rumors that he has cancer and the doubts about his military trial mean that this is no longer the case. If the situation on the battlefield worsens significantly, a power struggle could break out..

However, the most immediate response to the serious and growing military problems of Russia in Ukraine be a new wave of mobilizations. Ukraine he thinks it could start in a matter of days; his defense minister Oleksii Reznikov, suggested last week that it could be accompanied by the announcement of martial law. It seems certain that Bakhmut it will bear the brunt of any increase in forces, as it has been doing for months. “One day they are disorganized and the next they are restocking, that has always been the norm,” he says. hervolsky. “We are still struggling. But it seems there is no limit to the amount of crap they can throw at Bakhmut.”

© 2022, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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