After 10 months of warfare, ground assaults have largely come to a halt and the guns have mostly fallen silent in the city of Bakhmut.
Russian troops paused to rotate out the Wagner Group mercenaries who spearheaded the battle to capture the eastern Ukrainian city. Ukrainian forces paused a flanking manoeuvre that recently captured the high ground around Bakhmut “to perform other military tasks”.
Only one combat clash was reported in the 66th week of the war – on Saturday.
“There are no active battles there – neither in the city, nor on the flanks,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in a Telegram post.
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“Instead, the enemy is actively shelling the outskirts of the city and the approaches to it.”
in a video interview he posted to his Telegram channel, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said he had lost 20,000 mercenaries in the battle for Bakhmut alone.
The Russian defence ministry has not said how many supporting troops were killed from airborne and mechanised units.
“The amount of killing that took place is really hard to imagine … there’s rotting bodies, I’m sure, everywhere still,” retired US Colonel Seth Krummrich told Al Jazeera.
“They were talking about human waves … Prigozhin was becoming really frustrated shoving all these mercenaries in, trying to take 10 metres [32.8 feet] of ground,” said Krummrich, who has led special forces detachments in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and currently serves as vice president for Global Guardian, a security consultant.
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The calm before the storm
Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut on May 21, and nine days later Ukrainian eastern forces spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty admitted the city itself was in Russian hands.
“The enemy fought for this district centre for 10 months, but did not manage to capture it until the end,” he said.
He hinted at an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. “The Russians are well aware that, in addition to military losses, failure to hold the city can also cause them great reputational losses,” Cherevaty said.
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“I think the Russians are setting themselves up for an incredible failure,” Krummrich said. “With the imminent counteroffensive, they stand to lose Bakhmut and much, much more. If they’re going to claim a Russian victory to the Russian people now, they’re going to lose big-time if they get their supply lines cut off and they end up having to abandon the city.”
Ukraine has said it has 12 trained and equipped battalions ready to throw into the counteroffensive, and Krummrich believed weather was now the only factor holding them up.
“The units are trained, so I believe as soon as the ground dries, they’re going to go.”
“The Russians are sitting in Bakhmut, they understand what’s coming next, they understand they’re going to get attacked,” he said.
On May 28, Ukraine’s general staff said 80 Russian troops had deserted their positions in Lysychansk, the city in Luhansk province Russian forces seized last July. Another 30 Russian troops deserted in Bakhmut, taking military equipment with them, the staff said.
Slings and arrows
Instead of continuing the attritional ground battle for Bakhmut, Russia and Ukraine turned to a largely psychological war in the air.
On May 26, Ukraine’s air force said it had destroyed an airborne armada of 31 drones and 17 missiles overnight, including 10 Kh-101 and Kh-155 missiles fired from Russian planes over the Caspian Sea, seven S-300 and S-400 repurposed air defence missiles fired from occupied Zaporizhia, and 31 Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones.
The targets were “critical infrastructure and infrastructure of the defence forces” in the east of the country, said the air force.
Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov said the operation was chiefly of propaganda value.
“The enemy would like to show that their ‘analogovnet’ weapons can do something to the Ukrainian army and Western weapons. But it turns out not,” he said.
Two days later, Ukrainian air defences shot down at least 40 drones Russia launched at the capital, Kyiv, said the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko. Falling debris killed a man and wounded a woman.
The pre-dawn attacks came on the last Sunday of May, when the capital celebrates “Kyiv Day”, the anniversary of its official founding 1,541 years ago.
And the following day, Ukraine’s commander of the military, General Valery Zaluzhny, said the armed forces had destroyed all 11 Iskander-K and Iskander-M cruise missiles launched north of the border into Ukraine.
But on May 30, Ukraine seemed to have responded by sending eight drones to Moscow. Russia said it had jammed or shot down all eight drones.
In a post on Telegram after the attack, Alexander Khinshtein, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament from the governing United Russia bloc, said three of the eight drones had been downed over Rublyovka, a suburb west of Moscow where much of Russia’s political and business elite live.
“This is clearly a sign of terrorist activity,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
Ukrainian Colonel Petro Chernyk commented, “If drones of unknown origin break through multi-layered defences and practically fly to the capital of a country that considers itself a superpower, do their weapons have any value?”
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin blamed the defence ministry for a weak defence.
“You, the defence ministry, have done nothing to launch an offensive,” Prigozhin said.
“How dare you allow the drones to reach Moscow?”
Ukraine denied responsibility. “We have nothing directly to do with this,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.
Russia’s ambassador to Washington blamed the US for encouraging the attack, and mocked the Biden administration’s statement that it was gathering information on the incident.
“What are these attempts to hide behind the phrase they are ‘gathering information’?” Anatoly Antonov said in remarks published on Telegram.
“This is an encouragement for Ukrainian terrorists.”
On May 29, another attack by two drones caused an explosion in Russia’s Pskov region near the border with Belarus that left an oil pipeline’s administrative building damaged, local Governor Mikhail Vedernikov said.
Ukraine has sometimes initially denied responsibility for attacks it later claimed.
The New York Times reported unnamed US sources as saying Ukrainian special forces or military intelligence were behind a similar drone attack on the Kremlin on May 3.
On May 27, the leader of Ukraine’s intelligence service confirmed Kyiv’s involvement in an explosion that badly damaged the Kerch Bridge, connecting Russia to Russian-occupied Crimea, seven months after it happened.
Ukraine has also denied involvement in a May 22 incursion onto Russian territory by anti-Putin Russian nationalists. The Russian commander of that raid said his group would soon return.
“I think you will see us again on that side,” said Denis Kapustin at a news conference in Ukraine, describing himself as the commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps.
“Every operation that takes place on the territory of Russia forces the military leadership to move a large amount of forces precisely to that quadrant, therefore laying bare some parts of the front, parts of the border,” he said.
“The shaping of the battlefield is happening now for the counteroffensive,” Krummrich said.
“We see the attacks behind enemy lines, we see the attacks in Russia by those militias. We see the drone attacks in Moscow. That is all shaping what is coming next,” he said, adding that the complexity was aggravating Russian decision-makers, already politically divided over a war that is not going well.
“Russia now has to defend all the way back to their capital. They’re already spread thin. So, they’re going to have a lot of complex decisions to make about where to put their forces. If the last 15 months are any indicator, they will absolutely put their forces in the wrong place, and they’re going to lose,” Krummrich said.
“We need to prepare for an arduous war,” Wagner boss Prigozhin said in his interview.
“We are in such a condition that we could f***ing lose Russia – that is the main problem … We need to impose martial law.”
Russian former President Dmitry Medvedev also sought to prepare public opinion for a long fight.
“This conflict will last a very long time, most likely decades,” the RIA news agency cited Medvedev as saying during a visit to Vietnam.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley said Ukraine could liberate all of its territories by military means, “but probably not in the near future”, adding that such a war would be “bloody and difficult”.
“Russia will not win this war militarily,” Milley said.