A Fierce Ukrainian Mechanized Brigade Is Routing Russian Mercenaries In One Symbolic Eastern Town

When Ukrainian forces launched twin counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine starting in late August and early September, Russian and separatist troops across the country surrendered, retreated or died in place.

There was one major exception. Russian fighters from the notorious mercenary firm The Wagner Group defied the odds, and befuddled observers, when they not only held their ground around the free town of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine 25 miles southwest of Russian-occupied Severodonetsk, they kept attacking.

Analysts concluded that the Wagner assaults on Bakhmut—which failed to gain much ground, despite Russian claims to the contrary—were the company’s way of creating a narrative. That it was the only Russian force still capable of beating the Ukrainians.

The idea, apparently, was for Wagner to trade his battlefield reputation for political influence in Moscow. Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin “continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian armed forces,” explained the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC

That narrative now has become a farce. The mercenaries last week made one last, forceful attempt to seize Bakhmut, and finally gained a few square miles of the shell-pocked landscape. The enemy “does not stop trying to conduct offensive actions in the Bakhmut,” the Ukrainian general staff noted.

But a battle-hardened Ukrainian brigade intervened. Now Wagner is retreating, leaving behind piles of dead bodies. A pitched fight over a cement plant on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut was a turning point. Ukrainian troops took control of the plant on or before Monday.

To be clear, Wagner is not alone in the Bakhmut sector. Russian regulars and pro-Russian separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic, just south of Bakhmut, also claimed credit for what little terrain the Kremlin’s forces seized around the town starting in August.

But it was apparent that Wagner’s for-hire fighters were instrumental to whatever modest gains the Russians made around Bakhmut. Wagner has the advantage of experience in a Russian military enterprise increasingly bereft of it.

The mercenary firm has hired thousands of Russian veterans, even recruiting one daredevil pilot who got drummed out of the Russian air force for stealing and crashing an Su-27 in 2012. Meanwhile, the Russian military by last month was so desperate for manpower that it began drafting unfit, middle-aged men, sometimes grabbing them off the street.

Wagner’s relatively high level of experience compared with other Russian forces could not save it when the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade rolled into Bakhmut from Izium, 50 miles to the northwest. The 93rd MB isn’t the flashiest of Ukraine’s dozens of front-line brigades, but it is one of the most brutally effective.

The 93rd MB with its five tank and infantry battalions—altogether, several thousand troops and a hundred or more armored vehicles including tanks—has fought in, and endured, some of the bloodiest battles of Russia’s eight-month-old wider war on Ukraine.

In late March, the 93rd MB led one of the first major counterattacks around Kharkiv, the most vulnerable of Ukraine’s major cities. In the process, the 93rd MB met the Russian 4th Guards Tank Division in the town of Trostianets, 50 miles north of Kharkiv.

The 93rd MB’s troopers in their BMP and BTR fighting vehicles, packing Javelin anti-tank missiles and supported by T-64 and T-80 tanks and off-the-shelf drones, mauled the Russian division.

Five months later, in early August, the 93rd MB launched another counterattack, this time around Mazanivka southwest of Izium. The brigade liberated a few settlements, effectively previewing the wider Ukrainian counteroffensive that would begin three weeks later.

In early September, a dozen eager Ukrainian brigades punched through Russian lines around Kharkiv, routing exhausted Russian forces and quickly liberating a thousand square miles of northeastern Ukraine. The 93rd MB helped to free Izium then pivoted south towards Bakhmut. By October, the brigade held the northern half of the sector, while the Ukrainian 58th Motorized Brigade held the southern half.

The 58th MB is a lighter formation than the 93rd MB. It’s not totally clear how the two brigades—the heavier one and the lighter one—coordinated their operations. It’s possible the 58th MB deflected repeated Wagner assaults, helping to exhaust the mercenaries ahead of their final, and ultimately doomed, attack last week.

In any event, it seems the 93rd MB is the decisive force in the ongoing battle. On or around Friday, the 93rd MB counterattacked with its tanks, including one famous T-80 that the brigade captured from the Russian army.

Wagner collapsed. It had taken the mercenaries months to seize the intersection of the M03 and M06 highways just east of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians recaptured the intersection in just two days of fighting. Graphic videos from the battle depict heaps of dead mercenaries.

“Near Bakhmut, fighting remains heavy and dynamic,” an unnamed US defense official told reporters Monday. How far east the 93rd MB can advance as Wagner retreats might depend more on the weather than on whatever resistance Russian forces can offer up.

The early winter in Ukraine is wet and muddy. The mud is evident in recent photos of the Bakhmut battle.

That mud tends to slow, if not halt, military operations in Ukraine in November and December. Operations can resume once the ground freezes after the new year. The weather could slow the 93rd MB’s advance—and spare Wagner further humiliation.


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