The front line
Despite calls from the West to retreat from Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for redoubled efforts to hold the area last week. General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, meanwhile, estimated that the situation on the Bakhmut front remains difficult, with Wagner PMC assault units attacking from several directions in an attempt to break down Ukrainian defenses, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.
“Ukrainian troops … are also incurring heavy losses in Bakhmut, especially now that the paved routes for supplying ammunition and evacuating the wounded are no longer available and the alternative dirt roads aren’t passable for many wheeled vehicles,” the report reads.
Wagner is “mostly using its penal battalions made up of convict-recruits who have been promised an amnesty if they survive six months in Ukraine,” noted the WSJ.
“Wagner said Monday that its fighters have penetrated the underground of the vast Azom industrial plant, one of the Ukrainian strongholds in Bakhmut. There was no independent confirmation of that claim,” the WSJ wrote. Pro-Russian military expert Boris Rozhin also reported the storming of Azom.
A video depicting Ukraine’s 93rd “Kholodnyi Yar” Mechanized Brigade firing BMPs at the enemy in a residential area in the south of Bakhmut was circulated on Telegram channels.
Pro-Russian Telegram channels, such as Grey Zone (an outlet with reported links to the Wagner Group), wrote that if the Russian units manage to reach the Siversky Donets-Donbas channel in the north (having captured Minkivka), they may try to encircle Bakhmut by advancing along the channel from the north and south, bypassing Ivanivske. Analysts at Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) believe that this plan could take quite a long time to implement, meaning debates concerning the danger of an encirclement could be premature.
In a recent post on his Telegram channel, convicted war criminal Igor Girkin (Strelkov, Runov) claimed that the advance of Wagner PMC units near Bakhmut is “insignificant.” According to Girkin, Russian volunteers and mobilized soldiers are trying to bypass Avdiivka from the north and “reach its communications.”
An evening briefing by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) General Staff said that the Russian army continued to concentrate its main efforts on offensives in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Mariinka and Shakhtar directions, and does not appear to giving up its attempts to reach the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Prigozhin as a scapegoat
Putin and the Russian Defense Ministry may use Prigozhin as a scapegoat for the costly Bakhmut offensive as soon as the offensive culminates, said analysts at the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Putin is likely to use the Wagner PMC's heavy losses, reports of bad morale and war crimes to divert attention from identical or potentially more severe problems in the Russian armed forces, the ISW report said.
“The conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner shows that different parties in Putin’s inner circle are competing with one another in potentially zero-sum games that do not further Putin’s overall objectives,” the analysts concluded.
PMC Wagner begins recruitment among free Russian citizens
Both the daily update from British Defense Intelligence and the report from Institute for the Study of War is devoted to Wagner – namely, the attempts of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin to resume recruiting mercenaries. Prigozhin is likely to have lost access to the recruitment of prisoners in the Russian prisons and penal colonies due to his constant disputes with the Russian MoD leadership, according to British military intelligence. It is “highly likely” that he has now switched to recruiting free Russian citizens, the agency concluded.
The summary cited media reports from last week that confirmed Wagner has set up outreach teams based in sports centres in at least 40 locations across Russia. In recent days, masked Wagner recruiters also gave career talks in Moscow high schools, distributing questionnaires entitled “application of a young warrior” to collect the contact details of interested pupils, the report claimed. The authors of the update recalled that half of the prisoners the Wagner PMC sent to Ukraine were likely to have been killed or wounded. Prigozhin's new initiatives are unlikely to compensate for the loss of prisoner flow, the update concluded.
A settlement in the Kutsurub community in the Mykolaiv region was shelled, killing a man and a woman born in 1978 and 1980, reported regional administration head Vitalii Kim. The strike also resulted in an injury to a seven-year-old child, who was taken away by ambulance.
According to a report by the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, Russian troops had struck near a lyceum in the village of Znob-Novhorodske in the Sumy region. One civilian was killed and four more were wounded.
Russian troops launched two missile strikes on a school in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, killing a local resident, reported Yermak.
Two civilians – a primary school teacher and a maintenance worker – were wounded in the shelling of the Kyivskyi district of Donetsk, reported the head of the city's occupation administration, Oleksiy Kulemzin. “As a result of the shelling of the Kyivskyi district, two people were lightly wounded in school No. 58 on Partizansky Avenue,” Kulemzin wrote in a post on his Telegram channel. According to Kulemzin’s report, the school's windows were also damaged.
Ukrainian forces shelled the annexed town Volnovakha in the Donetsk region, reported Russia state-run news agency RIA Novosti. An investigator from Russia’s Investigative Committee told the agency that the shelling was presumably carried out from the US-made HIMARS MLRS. According to the official, two women were killed and a 14-year-old girl was wounded as a result of the strike.
Ukraine’s Operational Command South warned about the high threat of a Russian missile strike. Increased Russian tactical aviation activity has been reported in the east of Ukraine and over the Sea of Azov, while two missile carriers and a submarine are currently deployed in the Black Sea.
Arms supplies and Ukrainian military training
Ukraine became the world's third largest importer of weapons in 2022, preceded only by Qatar and India. The US accounted for 35% of total Ukrainian arms imports last year, followed by Poland (17%) and Germany (11%), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) annual report on international arms transfers.
Nevertheless, SIPRI noted that US exports to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Japan were higher than those to Ukraine, as weapons supplied to these countries by Washington are more advanced and expensive, such as combat aircraft and air defense systems.
Germany's Die Zeit reported that Ukrainian crews have completed several weeks of intensive training on Leopard 2 tanks, and are ready to deploy them in the field. The newspaper said that the Ukrainian servicemen had completed a full training course in Germany, which included live-fire exercises, and “will return home with the tanks” in March.