After weeks of unexpected battlefield setbacks for Russia, the war in Ukraine on Sunday delivered another surprise: the emergence of a former Russian convict and onetime hot-dog seller as perhaps the Kremlin’s best hope for a small, face-saving military victory.
With occupying Russian forces at peril in the strategic southern city of Kherson, troops with a private military force controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a convicted thief and longtime associate of Russia’s president, Vladimir. V. Putin, advanced on the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut in the east of the country.
The city, under attack by Russia for months, has little strategic value, but a victory there for Moscow would break its humiliating run of defeats — and give a boost to the political fortunes of Mr. Prigozhin, a shadowy businessman who served nine years in a Soviet prison for robbery. Mr. Prigozhin used to be mocked as “Putin’s cook” because of his business interests in catering but is now a growing force in Russia’s labyrinthine power politics.
Though steadfastly loyal to Mr. Putin in his public statements, Mr. Prigozhin has cut an increasingly assertive and independent figure, denouncing military commanders appointed by the Kremlin and, on a recent visit to Russia’s Kursk region, meeting with local businessmen about the organization of an ill-defined people’s militia outside the regular military command.
One of the commanders he criticized, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, the head of Russia’s Central Military District, has since left his post, according to the Russian state news media, and been replaced, at least temporarily, by Maj. Gen. Alexander Linkov. The top commanders of the eastern, southern and western military districts have all been replaced since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Under fire over military bungling in Ukraine from Mr. Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, Russia’s Defense Ministry last month appointed a new overall commander for its forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin.
Britain’s military intelligence agency, in its latest daily update on the war in Ukraine, said on Sunday that the “dismissals represent a pattern of blame against senior Russian military commanders for failures to achieve Russian objectives on the battlefield.” The frequent military reshuffling, it added, “is in part likely an attempt to insulate and deflect blame from Russian senior leadership at home.”
While the regular military has often floundered in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin’s private force, the Wagner Group, has on occasion put up more of a fight, particularly around Bakhmut in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
A correspondent for Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency said on Sunday that Wagner troops had seized the village of Ivangrad, which is close to a road on Bakhmut’s southern approach, and were fighting fierce battles in another suburb.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s forces in the east, Serhii Cherevaty, said that Bakhmut was “one of the hottest spots” in the region and where “the enemy is the most aggressive, with the concentration of its maximum forces.” He told a Ukrainian television channel that 30,000 Russian forces were deployed to the assault.
The capture of Bakhmut would not offset Russia’s September rout in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, now largely back under Ukrainian control, or reports of a recent drubbing near a town in Luhansk, another eastern region.
A Russian media outlet, Verstka, reported on Saturday that hundreds of Russian soldiers, mostly conscripts dragooned into the military as part of Mr. Putin’s recent “partial mobilization” had been killed near the town of Makiivka in Luhansk. The report quoted Aleksey Agafonov, a recently mobilized soldier who survived, as saying his unit had been ordered to dig defensive trenches near Ukrainian positions but given only three shovels and no provisions. When Ukraine started shelling, he said, “the officers immediately ran away,” leaving their untrained men in the open to face fire from Ukrainian artillery, mortars and helicopters.
As Russian forces made some progress in Bakhmut, a far more important and possibly decisive battle loomed for the southern port city of Kherson. Russia seized the city, on the west bank of the Dnipro River, at the start of the war and last month declared it part of the Russian Federation. But, warning of an imminent Ukrainian attack, it has since urged civilians to evacuate to the east bank of the river.
Kiril Stremousov, the Moscow-installed deputy head of the occupied Kherson region, said on Sunday that Ukraine was moving a large number of tanks and armored vehicles into the area. The evacuation of civilians, he said, was continuing. Russia also accused Ukraine of damaging the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam up the river from Kherson city with American-made HIMAR rockets. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, last month accused Moscow of planning to attack the dam in a “false flag” operation.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said late Sunday that its forces had attacked a building in Kakhovka but only because it was being used to house “up to 200 enemy soldiers,” adding that “the enemy carefully hides the consequences of this attack.” It also accused Russia of destroying private boats on the banks of the Dnipro, apparently to prevent them from being used by Ukraine should Russian troops retreat from Kherson city to the east side of the river.
Frustrated on the battlefield by motivated and, thanks to Western support, well-armed Ukrainian troops, Russia has turned with increasing fury on civilians, seeking to undermine Ukraine’s morale by pummeling power stations and other basic infrastructure with drone and missile attacks.
On Sunday in his nightly address, Mr. Zelensky said: “We also understand that the terrorist state is concentrating forces and means for a possible repetition of mass attacks on our infrastructure. First of all, energy.”
Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, the capital, warned residents on Sunday to prepare for the worst. “Let’s be frank, our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die,” he told Ukrainian news outlets. “The future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are.”
The Kremlin, troubled at home by questions about what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, seems to be hoping that Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group can deliver at least some good news in Bakhmut.
Russian forces have been grinding away at the eastern Ukrainian city for months, making little progress until now in what Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for a New American Security, has described as a “pointless offensive.”
The outcome of the battle for Bakhmut is unlikely to change the war’s overall dynamic, but Mr. Kofman said on the War on the Rocks podcast that the city would be an important prize for Mr. Prigozhin, enhancing his stature within the Kremlin.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said that Mr. Prigozhin was working to expand his influence while shielding his ambitions behind declarations of loyalty to Mr. Putin and appeals for national unity. These appeals, it added, aim to “both appeal to Russian nationalists and civilians and deflect criticism of his fairly overt efforts to build an independent power base.”
Mr. Prigozhin — who faced U.S. sanctions over meddling in the 2016 presidential election by an internet troll farm he ran in St. Petersburg — for years insisted he was just a businessman who ran a catering business. But, building on close military contacts he made through his work providing food for soldiers, he earned a reputation as a highly secretive fixer for the Kremlin by recruiting mercenaries to serve Russian interests in the Middle East and Africa.
Wagner Group recruits saw action in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, where the force became embroiled in a public scandal after the 2018 murder of three Russian journalists investigating Mr. Prigozhin’s activities in the former French colony.
Shedding much of his former secrecy, Mr. Prigozhin has become an increasingly outspoken and public figure, demanding that military commanders, including General Lapin, be sent “to run barefoot to the front with rifles” to punish them for incompetence.
After years of denying any connection to the Wagner Group, Mr. Prigozhin has broken cover since the start of the war in Ukraine, formally acknowledging his role as its founder in late September.
A curvy glass tower in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, was rebranded on Friday as the Wagner Center, which Mr. Prigozhin, in a statement, said would serve as a “military technology center” for inventors, engineers and information technology specialists aimed at “improving Russia’s defense capabilities, including in the information sphere.”
Cassandra Vinograd, Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.
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