According to the Institute for the Study of War, mercenaries fighting for Moscow are aided by the Russian air force as they attempt to capture Bakhmut.
The most recent assessment of the conflict by a U.S. think tank highlighted statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the director of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, that Russian-backed forces now control more than four-fifths of the territory in the contested city of Donetsk.
This is in response to claims by the Russian Ministry of Defense that Wagner fighters led efforts to seize territory in Bakhmut, attempting to drive Ukrainian troops back from the town's centre.
A businessman with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin has repeatedly criticized the Russian defence establishment for failing to provide his forces with the required ammunition.
Tuesday's Institute for the Study of War (ISW) report suggested, however, that the ministry is recognizing the role of Prigozhin's forces.
The ISW reported that Russian airborne forces supported Wagner's flanks north and south of Bakhmut. Rather than making substantial advances, this Russian aviation component likely only intends to hold these flanks.
This demonstrated that the Russian ministry "intends to use the Wagner Group to capture Bakhmut while minimizing casualties among conventional Russian forces," according to the report.
It also corroborates a previous ISW assessment that the ministry intends to use Wagner forces to capture Bakhmut, replace them and claim victory credit.
According to the think tank, Russian forces occupied at least 30,2 square kilometres or 76.5% of Bakhmut. However, this rises to 13,32 square miles (86.1%) when all Russian-claimed territory is considered.
Despite its relative lack of strategic value, Bakhmut has become a focus for Russian forces. Ukraine's commitment to the struggle there precedes a widely anticipated Kyiv offensive aided by Western weapons.
In a Substack article published on Wednesday, retired Australian Army Major Mick Ryan outlined potential options for Russian forces in the upcoming months, given the Kremlin's "Bakhmut fixation."
These include continuing their current offensive operations in the east despite physical, mental, and logistical exhaustion risks.
Alternately, they could shift the focus of their offensive operations to the south, where they have sufficient troops to conduct "disruptive attacks" against prospective Ukrainian offensives.
Russia could also cease offensive operations in the east and batten down in preparation for Ukrainian offensives.
"This is a logical course of action for the Russians if they are in this for the long haul and are more focused on attrition against the Ukrainians than expanding their territory," Ryan wrote.