During the 55th week of the war, mercenary fighters from Russia's Wagner Group intensified operations against Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut city in the Donetsk region as Russian offensive capability appeared to wane on Ukraine's eastern front.
For the last week, Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi of the Ukrainian military reported that the number of Russian ground strikes had reduced from a high of up to 100 per day to below 30 per day, with between two and nine attacks occurring at night. Dmytrashkivsky claimed that the Russian military had suffered severe losses in personnel and equipment.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank in Washington, DC, believed Russia's offensive in the Donetsk-adjacent Luhansk region was waning.
"The Russian offensive operation in the Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing its conclusion if it hasn't already," the ISW observed, even though Moscow has committed most of at least three divisions to the Svatove-Kreminna line.
The institute stated, "Russian troops have achieved limited tactical gains throughout the whole front line in Luhansk Oblast over the past week, while Ukrainian forces have likely recently conducted counterattacks and regained territory in Luhansk Oblast."
In its most recent intelligence update, the United Kingdom's defence ministry claimed that fighting had also slowed around Vuhledar in the Donetsk region. The only recent success occurred in the struggle for Bakhmut.
Russian attempts to invade the Donetsk oblast city of Vuhledar have almost probably stalled over the past week. This comes after three months of numerous, costly failed attacks... The ministry stated Russia's recent tactical success occurred in the Bakhmut area.
In addition, the ISW thought that Soviet forces were not conducting significant or influential offensive actions elsewhere in the theatre of battle. It was stated that "if the pace of operations slows along key frontline sectors, Ukrainian forces would likely have a greater opportunity to recover the initiative."
Yet the battle was growing in Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region where Russia and Ukraine have spent huge resources.
On March 10, Russian forces moved into eastern Bakhmut regions deserted by Ukrainian troops on March 8 when they retreated west of the Bakhmutka River.
Geotagged video accessible on social media shows Russian forces moving Ukrainian villagers west of the river at gunpoint.
Unknown is their future, wrote a Ukrainian military blogger. "Their most valuable possessions are bags. Behind the columns of 3 to 10 persons is a Russian with a machine gun."
Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Eastern Forces, stated on March 11 that fighting in Bakhmut has escalated over the past week, with 23 combat incidents occurring in the city in the past 24 hours alone. The next day, Cherevaty reported that more than 39 combat encounters occurred within Bakhmut. According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Ukrainian troops repelled Russian attacks on Bakhmut.
Wagner Group mercenaries, who have led Russia's struggle in Bakhmut for months, attempted to encircle the city in February, first from the south and then from the north, to cut off the Ukrainian troops' supplies. Yet, they have failed to do so thus far.
Yet, Ukrainian forces within Bakhmut appeared to be in a sustained tactical retreat.
Russian military bloggers asserted that forces from the Wagner Group had crossed the Bakhmutka River and assaulted Ukrainian positions. Geolocated video footage published on March 13 revealed that the Russian troops had advanced along Sadova Street in southern Bakhmut.
The industrial zone of the city's AZOM metal processing factory appeared to be another Russian target. The March 10 social media footage showed Ukrainian forces destroying Russian weapons near the conflict zone.
By March 14, it was widely reported by Russian military media that Wagner Group fighters had captured the "Vostokmash" plant in the northern AZOM complex. Social media images depicted Wagner's forces inside the factory.
If Russian forces want to converge on AZOM, Bakhmut could face the same fate as other eastern Ukrainian cities. At the brutally contested battles of Mariupol and Severdonetsk, Ukrainian forces made their final stands within industrial complexes whose robust design made them more defensible. In the end, however, they were either forced to retreat or surrender due to the potency of Russian weaponry.
Wagner versus the Russian Ministry of Defense
Amid these incremental military triumphs, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin engaged in a new public battle with Russia's military establishment over the apparent unwillingness of the defence ministry to give ammunition to his forces. Alexei Mukhin, a political scientist linked with the Kremlin, implied that Prigozhin had presidential ambitions in Russia and was a potential challenge to President Vladimir Putin in the 2024 race.
Prigozhin said that while the Russian defence ministry ignored "550 attempts" to purchase ammo for Wagner, Russian troops had moved 12 to 15 cars full of ammunition from the front lines in Zaporizhia, Donetsk city, and Avdiivka to Bakhmut for use by Wagner fighters.
The episode implies that while a public relations war between Prigozhin and the Russian defence ministry, which appears to be attempting to discredit Wagner, continues, Prigozhin has succeeded in ingratiating himself with Russian officers in Ukraine.
In response to an inquiry from a military blogger, the Wagner executive provided the same answer.
"At the beginning of the previous year, fate severely shook [conventional forces], and with their eyes dimmed from grief and treachery, they clung to us [Wagner]. We cared for and sheltered them for about a year: at first, we kept them within our group until they gradually grew more assertive. Today they are covering one of our flanks, said Prigozhin.
Then, he openly criticized Russia's defence ministry, praising a Russian brigade commander with whom he was on friendly terms as "a regular, powerful Russian man" and stating that "such individuals should govern the Russian army."
"We just missed the moment when unprofessional scoundrels and provocateurs began to bully and humiliate these humble folks," he continued.
The conflict between Prigozhin and the defence minister may hurt the Russian effort.
The ISW stated that "the Wagner offensive alone will not suffice to capture Bakhmut."
But, the think tank observed that Russia may still employ underutilized forces in the region, such as the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division.