Ukraine Situation Report: Wagner Has Up To 36,000 Troops In Bakhmut Says Top U.S. General

The Wagner private military group has about 6,000 “actual mercenaries” fighting around the embattled city of Bakhmut with another 20,000 to 30,000 recruits “many of who come from prisons,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.

“They are suffering an enormous amount of casualties in the Bakhmut area of Ukraine,” Army Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee. Ukrainian forces, he said, are inflicting “a lot of death and destruction on those guys.”

The “Ukrainians are doing a very effective area defense that has proven to be very costly to the Russians,” Milley said. “For about the last 20, 21 days, the Russians have not made any progress whatsoever. So it’s a slaughter-fest for the Russians. They’re getting hammered in the vicinity of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians have fought very, very well. That’s also true across the entire frontline trace from Kreminna all the way down to Kherson. The Ukrainians have fought a remarkable defensive fight and the Russians have not achieved their strategic objectives.”

While Milley may have been generalizing — there may have been some small gains made by Russian forces during this time period — the Russian push in Bakhmut, he added, is not a separate battle, but part of their larger offensive that has sputtered.

“I think the Russian offensive began some time ago and in fits and starts and has not achieved the momentum and success that they expected to achieve.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s capo di tutti capi, said that the heavy price paid by his forces has been worth it.

“If Wagner PMC dies in the Bakhmut meat grinder and takes the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the forces given to it with it, then we have fulfilled our historical role,” Prigozhin said Wednesday in a stunning admission on his Telegram channel.

“After the capture of Popasnaya, the battle for Bakhmut was planned back in the summer of 2022,” he said. “PMC Wagner is systematically following this path.”

Referring to his troops in the colloquial term “musicians” – a nod to German composer Richard Wagner, the inspiration for his organization’s name – Prigozhin said the fight for Bakhmut has taken a toll on both sides. 

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of one of his troops who died fighting Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

“This battle destroyed the army of Ukraine and pretty battered [the] ‘musicians,’” he said. “The victory of the ‘musicians’ will dramatically turn the special operation upside down, since only the Russian army will remain on the chessboard. The flanks – south and north – must go and tear everything that remains of the Ukrainian army. That’s when history will turn back.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky justified his decision to keep fighting in Bakhmut, despite those losses.

Should Bakhmut fall completely to Moscow’s forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran,” Zelensky told AP.

“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky told AP that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.

“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.

“Zelensky’s comments were an acknowledgment that losing the 7-month-long battle for Bakhmut — the longest of the war thus far — would be more of a costly political defeat than a tactical one,” AP reported.

“Our society will feel tired,” he said, talking about the strategic and political fallout should Bakhmut fall. “Our society will push me to have compromise with them.”

But there are also purely military reasons to keep that fight going, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the Estonian ERR news agency on Monday.

“We have reduced their [Russian’s] offensive capability and stabilized the front, allowing us to prepare for a counteroffensive,” Reznikov said. “They [the Russians] have suffered heavy losses, with at least 500 soldiers killed or wounded every day. This means that each day brings our victory and their defeat closer.”

Reznikov’s Defense Ministry (MoD) on Wednesday acknowledged the challenges at Bakhmut.

“The enemy continues its assault on the city of Bakhmut, with partial success,” the MoD said on its Telegram channel. “However, our defenders courageously hold the city [and] repel numerous enemy attacks.”

The MoD claimed its forces repelled 48 Russian attacks on Bakhmut and other nearby towns in the Donetsk Oblast in the past 24 hours.

As the cost in personnel and equipment in the seven-month-long battle for Bakhmut mounts for both sides, the coming months will show whether it was worth it for Ukraine to expend the resources it did there. 

Before we dive into the latest updates from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Ukraine apparently launched another attack on Crimea Wednesday.

There was “an explosion near the Gvardeyskoye air base” in Crimea, the Russian Baza news agency reported Wednesday on its Telegram channel.

The main unit at Gvardeyskoye is the 37th Composite Aviation Regiment, which flies Su-24M Fencer swing-wing combat jets and Su-25SM Frogfoot ground attack aircraft.

“Local residents post videos from the site,” Baza reported. “Local authorities said that the explosion is related to the work of air defense. According to preliminary data, a drone was shot down.”

“A UAV was shot down in the Simferopol region,” Sergey Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed occupation governor of Crimea, said on his Telegram channel. ”Fell into the field. There are no casualties or destruction. Trust only trusted sources of information.”

Crimea has been a frequent target of Ukrainian attacks from the air and sea. You can read more about that in our coverage here.

Ukraine also fired again over the border in Belgorod, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on his Telegram channel Wednesday.

“At the moment, the village of Cheremoshnoye, Belgorod region, is being shelled,” Gladkov said. “According to preliminary data, no victims. There is damage to the power supply in several settlements of the region. Emergency and operational services went to the site to eliminate the consequences and reconnect subscribers to backup power sources.”

As with Crimea, the Belgorod region has been a frequent target of Ukraine. Since April 2022, there have been multiple reports of Ukraine’s armed forces striking at targets in Belgorod, which lies just on the opposite side of the country’s northeastern border.

Ukrainian forces also struck in Melitopol, a Zaporizhzhia Oblast town that, as we reported back in December, will likely be a key focus of any future offensive aimed toward Crimea.

If you ever wanted to see just how insane trench warfare can be, check out this video compiled by Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov from his interview with and combat camera footage shot by Ruslan Gubavrev, an infantryman of the 22nd Motorized Infantry Battalion, 92nd Brigade. 

The footage is from a battle that took place on Feb. 16 near Svatove in the Luhansk Oblast.

Gubarev was awarded the “Golden Cross” badge of honor personally by Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Swedish-provided RBS-56 BILL 2 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) have apparently appeared in Ukraine.

Speaking of ATGMs, Ukrainian paratroopers reportedly shot down one, and maybe two Russian Ka-52 helicopters with their own homegrown ATGM, according to this video posted by the 95th Airborne Assault Brigade which claimed the attack.

Women who serve as medical personnel for Russian front-line troops have been threatened into sexual relations with officers, according to interviews conducted by the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/RadioLiberty (RFE/RL)

“According to Margarita, when she was at war, she did not notice the changes that had taken place with herself, but when she returned to Russia, she realized that her psyche was completely broken,” RFE/RL reported. “She tells about what she saw and experienced in a calm, even voice, but this makes the stories about the murder of soldiers by her own colleagues, bullying drunk officers…and forcing married women from the medical company into sexual relations sound even more terrible. Margarita, herself could not be broken and ‘put’ under someone, although they tried from the first day.”

Ukraine needs long-range air defense systems and fighter aircraft to deal with the guided bombs Russian aircraft are launching more frequently, Air Forces spokesperson Col. Yurii Ignat said Tuesday on Ukrainian national television, according to The New Voice of Ukraine media outlet.

“We can see a recent increase in the activity of their tactical aircraft that launch not only long-range missiles, but also guided bombs on the areas close to the frontline,” Ignat said.

The best way to counter this threat is to keep Russian aircraft, which launch missiles and guided bombs, away from the border and the frontline, he added.

Russia said Ignat, is using FAB-500 Soviet-designed air-dropped bombs that have been modernized to guided ones.

​​”It’s guided bombs of the Soviet times with ‘wing-kits’ attached to them that are capable of targeting by GPS coordinates. A Russian fighter jet can stay beyond the reach of our air defense and drop bombs from a distance of about 40-50 km [about 25 to 31 miles] away from the border or the frontline,” Ignat said.

Images of that conversion first appeared online in January, which you can read about here. It was apparently first used earlier this month.

The Russian modification appears to be similar to the Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range precision-guided bombs, or JDAM-ERs the U.S. has provided to Ukraine.

Standard JDAM kits are designed to be mated to various types of Mk 80-series dumb bombs, and other munitions designed around that same form factor, transforming them into precision-guided weapons. The complete JDAM kit consists of a new tail, which contains a GPS-assisted inertial navigation system (INS) guidance system, and strakes that go elsewhere along the bomb body giving it a limited ability to glide to its designated target.

You can read more about those weapons here.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently visited munitions plants as his nation tries to boost its production of ammo that it is running through at the incredible pace of more than 400,000 shells per month, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said earlier this month, according to FT.

The U.S., meanwhile, will double monthly production of 155mm artillery shells to 24,000 by year’s end and increase it sixfold within five years, Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo said Tuesday, according to Defense One.  

All told, the Pentagon will spend $1.45 billion to upgrade production facilities in an effort to replenish U.S. stocks and to provide more rounds to Ukraine, Camarillo told reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium here. In addition, the Army is also boosting production of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or GMLRS, he said.

Production of Javelin missiles will more than double to 330 a month, and production of launchers will double to 41 a month, Camarillo said, according to Defense One. It will cost $349 million to add factory lines, purchase equipment, and hire second shifts, he said. The Army is also upping monthly GMLRS production from 566 missiles to 1,110 by 2026, Camarillo said.

The first six Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks from Spain should arrive in Ukraine after Easter, according to Spain’s El Pais news agency. The tanks have been upgraded and have engaged in firing exercises, El Pais reported.

Earlier this week, Reznikov was seen in a video riding in a Challenger 2 tank. Today, he posted a video of himself in a German-provided Marder armored vehicle, one of the 40 that arrived in Ukraine this week.

What’s old remains new in this ongoing conflict. In this case, it appears that Ukraine has been using modified Soviet World War II-era anti-tank bombs as munitions dropped on Russians by drones.

Russian authorities are looking into whether the March 16th explosion at the FSB Boarder Guard headquarters in Rostov-on-Don in Russia was the result of border guards mishandling a Ukrainian drone, the Russian Baza news agency reported on its Telegram channel Wednesday.

The guards may have mistaken a strike drone for a reconnaissance drone, Baza reported.

“Most likely, the security forces tried to inspect the UAV on their own and, if possible, get a record from the camera with which it was equipped (whether it was a personal initiative or an order from the leadership is being checked),” Baza reported. “However, while disassembling [it], the UAV exploded, and then the fire spread to the warehouse. Three employees dismantling the drone died.”

A Ukrainian hacking group was able to infiltrate the email of a Russian pilot and convince his wife to get the spouses of other pilots to stage a group photo of them in their husband’s uniforms.

The InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community “received from Ukrainian hacktivists of the Cyber Resistance team the e-mail dumps and other private correspondence of a Russian war criminal, commander of the 960th Assault Aviation Regiment (military unit 75387), Colonel Sergey Atroshchenko,” InformNapalm reported. “His regiment is stationed at an airfield near the city of Primorsko-Akhtarsk in the Krasnodar Krai, on the shores of the Sea of Azov.”

The hacktivists “monitored the colonel’s correspondence for several months and made the most effective use of the leaks in the interests of the Ukrainian Defense Forces. At present, given the refusal of Col. Atroshchenko to cooperate with the Ukrainian intelligence agencies, a decision has been made to make public the fact of the hack as well as some sensitive information about him and his regiment.”

The group photo was part of that effort, which provides a lot more detail about the unit and its aircraft. The document dump also includes private photos sent to the colonel by his wife.

A Russian single father whose daughter was reported for drawing an anti-war picture has been given a two-year jail term for discrediting the army, according to the BBC.

Alexei Moskalev, 53, however, was not in court in Yefremov for the verdict. The court press secretary said he had escaped house arrest.

“I don’t know where he is,” his lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko told the BBC.

His daughter Masha, 13, was sent to a children’s home in early March when the criminal case began.

Moskalev was accused of repeatedly criticizing the Russian army on social media and had appeared in court the day before.

And finally, the beaver is back!

A few days ago, we showed you a video of Ukrainian forces trying to remove a beaver from a trench. Well, new video has emerged, showing those troops still battling that beaver.

That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when there’s more news to report about Ukraine.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.