The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said Friday his forces had ‘practically encircled’ Bakhmut, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine that has seen the fiercest fighting of Moscow’s invasion.
Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin said there was ‘just one road remaining’ out of the city for its Ukrainian defenders to leave by, as Russia’s forces moved in.
Footage circulated online showing a railway bridge being destroyed in an explosion, which some said was Ukrainian forces covering their retreat. Others said Russia destroyed the bridge. MailOnline could not immediately verify the video.
Ukraine has said it will defend ‘fortress Bakhmut’ for as long as possible, but this week officials conceded the situation was becoming increasingly difficult.
Russia is determined to seize Bakhmut – a now-destroyed city once known for its sparkling wine – as part of its wider aim of capturing the entire Donetsk region.
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured) said Friday his forces had ‘practically encircled’ Bakhmut, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine that has seen the fiercest fighting of Moscow’s invasion
‘Wagner paramilitary group units have practically surrounded Bakhmut, only one road remains’ to be captured, Prigozhin said in a video on Telegram.
The stocky 61-year old has regularly been posting about advances of Wagner, his once-shadowy force that has taken centre stage in the fight in eastern Ukraine.
He has said in recent weeks that his fighters have seized three villages north of Bakhmut – Yagidne, Berkhivka and Paraskoviivka.
Some of his previous claims, such as when he said Wagner had captured Soledar in January – have been disputed by Moscow, raising suggestions of a power struggle.
‘If earlier we were fighting against the professional army, we now increasingly see old people and children,’ Prigozhin said, in the video released Friday, in which the Wagner warlord also appeared to display three Ukrainian PoWs.
‘They are fighting, but their life expectancy in Bakhmut is now very short, one day or two,’ Prigozhin said, calling on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to ‘let (Ukrainian soldiers) leave’.
Ukrainian troops have held out for months, fighting brutal trench warfare and artillery battles that have flattened large portions of the city.
Zelensky this week said that the fighting was ‘only increasing.’
His comments followed an assessment from the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said the situation was ‘extremely tense’ in the city.
Only around 4,500 civilians remain in the destroyed city, which had a population of about 70,000 before the conflict, Ukrainian officials said.
Both Ukrainian and Russian forces have reported heavy casualties in the struggle for the control of the city, whose symbolic importance outstrips its military significance.
Wagner itself, which at its peak boasted a force of around 50,000 fighters after Prigozhin recruited thousands of convicts from Russia, is understood to have lost as many as 40,000 of these troops in its assault around the Bakhmut region.
Wagner and Russia is reported to have sent wave after wave of soldiers against Ukrainian defences, in fighting likened to a First World War ‘meat grinder’.
Pictured: Ukrainian servicemen prepare to fire a Msta-B howitzer towards Russian positions, near the frontline town of Bakhmut on March 2, as they continue to defend the city
Ukraine has said it will defend ‘fortress Bakhmut’ for as long as possible, but this week officials conceded the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Pictured: Ukrainian soldiers are seen walking in a muddy trench new the frontlines around the city, as Russia closes in
This file video grab taken from a drone by AFPTV shows an aerial view of the near-total destruction of the city of Bakhmut on February 27
Kyiv has said its forces are still holding out there, while acknowledging the situation has deteriorated this week.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, told Ukrainian NV Radio the situation was ‘critical’, with fighting going on ’round the clock’.
‘They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every metre of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy,’ he said.
‘We need as much ammunition as possible. There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.’
The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit active in Bakhmut, Robert Brovdi who goes by the name ‘Madyar’, said in a video posted on social media that his unit had been ordered by the military to withdraw immediately from the city. He said he had been fighting there for 110 days, and gave no reason for the order to leave.
The fight for the city has also exposed political rivalries between Putin’s long-term ally Prigozhin and the Russian Armed Forces.
Last week, he issued an unprecedented call to Russians to take his side and urged the defence ministry to share ammunition with his fighters.
While the hotspot of the fighting is in the east of Ukraine, Russia said this week that a group of Ukrainian combatants had crossed into the southern Bryansk region.
Kyiv dismissed the claims as a ‘deliberate provocation’.
Moscow says its regions bordering Ukraine are routinely shelled by Ukrainian forces, but the reported incursion was a rare instance of fighting inside Russia.
The Kremlin said Friday it would take steps to prevent cross-border incursions which killed two. ‘Measures will be taken to prevent similar events in the future,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The Kremlin meanwhile warned the West against providing more arms to Ukraine, as key Kyiv backers President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were set to meet in Washington.
Scholz’s first trip to Washington since February 2022 offers the leaders the opportunity to demonstrate their resolve in backing Ukraine against Russia.
But the Kremlin said the deliveries only strain Western economies and would have no impact on fighting on the ground.
‘(Arms deliveries) place a significant burden on the economies of these countries and negatively affect the well-being of citizens of these countries, including Germany,’ Peskov told reporters.
‘It is obvious that this will prolong the conflict and have sad consequences for the Ukrainian people,’ he added.
A Ukrainian serviceman gestures as he rides a tank on a road towards the frontline town of Bakhmut amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region, Ukraine March 2
A still image taken from video released by founder of Russia’s Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin’s press service, shows what it said to be Wagner fighters standing with a flag on top of a building in Bakhmut, Ukraine, in this still image taken from video released March 2
A Russian tank is destroyed by an explosive dropped by a drone near Bakhmut on Wednesday
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed since Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour a year ago, on February 24, 2022.
Moscow, which says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, accuses Kyiv of posing a security threat. Ukraine and its allies say the invasion was an unprovoked war to conquer land – an imperialistic land-grab by an increasingly aggressive Putin.
On the sidelines of a G20 foreign ministers meeting in India, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov face to face for the first time since the invasion.
Blinken told Lavrov to end the war, and urged Moscow to reverse its suspension – announced last week – of the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement, U.S. officials said.
Speaking at a forum in the Indian capital on Friday, Blinken said Russia cannot be allowed to wage war with impunity, otherwise it would send ‘a message to would-be aggressors everywhere that they may be able to get away with it too.’