Ukraine war latest: Russia claims advance north of Bakhmut, Ukraine denies
Key developments on Jan. 29:
Ukraine denied on Jan. 29 that Russian forces made gains near Bakhmut, dismissing Moscow’s earlier claim that it captured a village that could serve as a crucial step for the city's encirclement.
Kremlin-controlled Wagner mercenary group on Jan. 28 claimed victory over the eastern village of Blahodatne in Donetsk Oblast, located 10 kilometers north of Bakhmut. Capturing the village would imply that Russian forces had crossed the strategic Bakhmutovka River.
Blahodatne sits just west of Soledar, a salt-mining town that fell to Russia this month. Russia intensified its offensive on Soledar in early January in an apparent desperate bid to present some results after suffering a string of humiliating battlefield defeats in 2022.
After capturing Soledar, the Wagner mercenaries and Russian forces appear to be on track to encircle and occupy Bakhmut, a city they had sought to capture for six months.
Capturing Bakhmut would allow Russia to disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines in the area and open up a main road leading to the two key Ukrainian cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Western military analysts and intelligence services have put out varying assessments on Bakhmut’s strategic value – some are concerned that seizing it would help Russia make its long-sought breakthrough in Donetsk Oblast, while others say it won’t be as significant loss due to the scale of the city’s destruction.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Jan. 29 that Russian forces were conducting offensive operations in the east of the country but did not confirm their advance.
The General Staff said that Ukrainian forces had repelled the Russian offensives, including the one on Blahodatne – effectively denying Russia's claim.
However, Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin released a video on his Telegram channel on Jan. 29, with his mercenaries reporting in front of a sign reading Blahodatne that they have “completely” taken control of the village and are ready to advance further.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not mention Blahodatne in its Jan. 29 briefing.
Ukraine’s denial of the Russian advance north of Bakhmut comes amid reports that Russia appears to be rushing its offensive in Donetsk Oblast ahead of the Kremlin’s goal to capture the region in the coming months.
Ukraine’s intelligence said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had instructed the new commander overseeing Russia’s war in Ukraine, Valeriy Gerasimov, to capture Donetsk Oblast by March.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov said on Jan. 16 that capturing Donbas, an industrial heartland comprised of Donetsk and Luhasnk oblasts, has been Moscow’s priority since it was forced to give up its original goal of capturing Kyiv in spring 2022.
While Russia occupies the majority of Luhansk Oblast, it only controls roughly half of Donetsk Oblast.
Wagner mercenaries ‘exhausted’ on Bakhmut front
After months of stalled war efforts in Ukraine, the U.K. Defense Ministry assessed in December that there is “a realistic possibility” that Russia sees capturing Bakhmut “primarily (as) a symbolic, political objective.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based defense think-tank analyzing the war in Ukraine, said on Jan. 28 that Wagner mercenaries, who have participated in Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, appear to be “exhausted.”
“The Wagner Group’s assault on Bakhmut has likely culminated with its surge on Soledar,” the ISW said.
Recent investigations by the New York Times and Reuters have revealed that the Wagner Group mercenaries were suffering extremely heavy casualties.
Reuters said in its piece that Prigozhin motivated prisoners, including contract killers, murderers, career criminals, and people with alcohol problems, by promising that they would be free if they survived half a year on the Ukraine front.
“Conventional Russian forces are likely replacing exhausted Wagner Group forces to maintain the offensive in Bakhmut,” the ISW said.
An anonymous U.S. official said on Jan. 5 that Wagner, which consists of about 50,000 mercenaries, has had over 4,100 members killed and 10,000 wounded – with more than 1,000 killed between late November and early December, the Guardian reported.
Olga Romanova, head of Russia Behind Bars, a nonprofit that protects the rights of convicts, recently said that only 10,000 of the nearly 50,000 mercenaries recruited into Wagner had remained in service – suggesting that the rest had deserted or had been killed or wounded.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s intelligence said that Prigozhin “does not directly command combat units or head the (Wagner) headquarters.” Spokesman Yusov said on Jan. 29 that Prigozhin’s main role is political and informational, as well as to ensure the funding of Wagner.
Wagner was designated as a “significant transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. Treasury Secretary on Jan. 26.
Intensified shelling on Kherson
Kherson Oblast Military Administration reported on Jan. 29 that Russian forces had struck the regional capital, Kherson, with “massive” artillery fire in an attack that targeted residential areas, including a hospital.
The administration said that three people were killed and six were wounded. They were hospitalized, and one is in serious condition, according to its press service.
A nurse and a buffet worker at Kherson’s regional hospital were among the wounded, according to the administration.
Besides the hospital, Russian forces shelled a school, bus station, a post office, a bank, and residential buildings, the local authorities said.
Russian forces had begun intensively shelling Kherson and its surrounding areas after they were forced to withdraw from the western side of the Dnipro River in November.
While Ukrainian authorities continue to restore civilian infrastructure in areas after they were occupied by Russia for nearly nine months, Russia’s daily shelling of the area makes the task difficult.
On Christmas Eve, a Russian shelling killed 16 people and wounded dozens in central Kherson.
Kherson was the only regional capital that Russia managed to capture since it launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine on Feb. 24. Russia still controls areas on the eastern side of the Dnipro River.