Ukraine: Prigozhin says Bakhmut is ‘surrounded’ by Wagner
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The world “shouldn’t underestimate” Russia in the Ukraine war despite a year of setbacks and embarrassments, Express.co.uk has been told. It comes as the country is believed to be preparing to send hundreds of thousands of conscripts to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where a long and bloody battle has been taking place for months. Intense fighting is happening in and around the city of Bakhmut, and both Russia and Ukraine are struggling to replenish their dwindling ammunition stores.
Reports now suggest that soldiers in the region are increasingly fighting in close combat situations, with the UK Defence Ministry claiming Russian troops are resorting to fighting with shovels.
It all points to a Russia seriously on the back foot and one that may not be able to hold out for much longer without the help of foreign powers.
Yet, while the situation appears to be falling out of Vladimir Putin’s favour, some are still weary of calling short the country’s chances.
What Moscow currently lacks in firepower and international support it makes up for in sheer manpower.
It has millions of men of fighting age at its disposal if it decides that calling conscription is the only way to solve the problem.
Yet, this is not its only trump card. As Dr Neil Melvin, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said, Russia appears to be regrouping and reevaluating behind closed doors.
Looking to the near future of the war, he told Express.co.uk: “I think what we have seen is that the Russians are improving.
“We shouldn’t underestimate their ability to adapt and get better. They’re still making a lot of mistakes and they seem to have wasted a lot of lives and a lot of equipment.
“But they’ve also mobilised a lot more people and they’ve also begun to mobilise more equipment, and they’re making more equipment.
“They’re strengthening their command and control, and they’ve been bringing in these mercenary groups like Wagner. And these groups have begun operating into a single command structure.
“The Russians are still performing badly, but they are getting better. This is something we have to watch quite carefully.”
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Groups like Wagner, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a friend of Putin’s, this week called out Moscow after he claimed his men, trying to seize Bakhmut, were running out of ammunition.
Speaking in a video posted to social media, he said the event unfolding was either “ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal” — perhaps a hint as to the direction Russian mercenary groups in Ukraine are heading.
Mr Prigozhin said his group had been expecting a shipment of ammunition from Russia which never arrived. He said: “If we step back, then we will go down in history forever as the people who took the main step to lose the war.
“And this is precisely the problem with that same shell hunger [ammunition shortage]. This is not my opinion, but ordinary fighters…
“What if they [the Russian authorities] want to set us up, saying that we are scoundrels, and that’s why they don’t give us ammunition, they don’t give us weapons, and they don’t let us replenish our personnel, including from among the imprisoned people?”
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He went on to claim that without his troops, the Ukrainian frontline would collapse and Russia forced to retreat to its own borders.
Relations between Wagner and the Kremlin have grown increasingly tense, and Putin appears unworried about the prospect of the group leaving Ukraine.
In January, Ukrainian intelligence suggested that Putin was preparing to send 500,000 conscripts to fight in the country.
Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, said he believed the conscripts would be used as part of Russia’s spring and summer offensive in the east and south of the country.
Putin has largely rebuffed these claims, saying it was “pointless” to talk about a new mobilisation, claiming that he had only sent half of those already called up to Ukraine.
However, some reservists in the country say they fear that that is exactly what is going to happen.
Sergei, a Russian man who spoke to Politico, said he had initially fled to Finland when the mobilisation began in September. He has since returned to Moscow, and said: “I carry my papers on me at all times. My military ID, which states I have a health condition, and my work pass.”
When Russia began its first mass mobilisation late last year, it largely recruited soldiers from the far-flung regions of the federation, places in the east and the Caucasus.
Military figures who arrived to take the young men away were met by fierce protests from town and city folk.
Authority buildings were set on fire, and one officer drafting residents in Ust-Ilimsk, Irkutsk, was shot at point-blank range.
Whether Putin calls for another round of mobilisation is up for debate, but Russia is currently gearing up for its spring offensive as conditions get better.
For Dr Melvin, a pessimistic scenario may well begin to unfold: “Perhaps the Ukrainians can’t beat the Russians. The Russians are going to throw in as many people as it takes, and pay whatever economic costs.”
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