U.K. says Moscow’s forces are suffering highest casualty rates since start of invasion.
KYIV, Ukraine—Russian paramilitary forces said they had captured a settlement on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that Moscow has been pushing to encircle in some of the most intense fighting seen since the beginning of the war a year ago.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner paramilitary group, said Sunday that his forces had secured Krasna Hora, a settlement of about 600 people before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, which sits on the northern edge of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.
The claim came as the U.K. said regular Russian forces had suffered some of their highest casualties of the war in recent weeks.
In an audio message posted to a Telegram channel associated with Mr. Prigozhin, the businessman said that regular Russian troops weren’t involved in the fighting—a claim that reflects continuing tension between Mr. Prigozhin and the Russian military establishment, which he has frequently derided. Russia’s Defense Ministry didn’t mention Krasna Hora in its daily operational briefing on Sunday.
“Within a radius of more or less 50 kilometers, there are only Wagner Group fighters, who will take Bakhmut,” Mr. Prigozhin said. The businessman, who has links to President Vladimir Putin, also published a short video showing what appeared to be several Wagner fighters at an entrance sign to the settlement.
Krasna Hora lies between Bakhmut and the town of Soledar, which Russian forces captured last month in their first significant success in Ukraine since July. The slow gains underscore that even as Russian troops have seized the initiative in the fighting in recent weeks, the offensive is grinding—and costly in men and materiel—as Kyiv’s forces seek to weather the assault while they wait on the arrival of additional Western weapons shipments.
Ukrainian officials and Western military experts have warned that Russian forces are planning a broader offensive in the coming weeks, as the first anniversary of the invasion nears. Defense ministers from more than 50 countries are expected to discuss the supply of weapons Tuesday at a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group led by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Brussels.
Ukrainian officials said they were holding their positions in and around Bakhmut, and didn’t acknowledge any loss of new territory. The Ministry of Defense didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a post on Telegram on Saturday, Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said that the situation in the Donetsk region was tense but that Ukrainian forces continued to hold Bakhmut.
“The enemy carries out up to 50 attacks every day,” he wrote. “Fierce fighting continues in the area of Vuhledar and Maryinka. We reliably hold the defense. In some areas of the front, we managed to regain previously lost positions and gain a foothold there.”
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told Ukrainian media that the Russians were struggling to launch their offensive in the country’s northeast. “They have already started their offensive, they just don’t say that they have started it,” he said, “and our troops are repelling it very powerfully.”
The claimed gains near Bakhmut come after Mr. Prigozhin in the past week said the Wagner group was no longer recruiting convicts from Russia’s vast prison system, which had helped give Moscow a manpower advantage in eastern Ukraine.
According to U.S. estimates in January, Wagner had some 50,000 men deployed in Ukraine; 40,000 were convicts who had been released from prison. Without more prisoners to fill Wagner’s ranks, the group will either need to find another source of recruits, or shift away from the high-casualty strategy that has characterized its assault on Bakhmut.
In his comments on Sunday, Mr. Prigozhin said Wagner forces were focusing only on that city, not on any other areas in Ukraine. In the past week he had said it could take up to two more years for Russia to capture the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Mr. Putin annexed in September and whose defense is a priority for the Kremlin. Mr. Prigozhin said the war could take up to three years if the Kremlin decides to seize territories east of the Dnipro River.
Regular Russian forces have also suffered heavy losses, with U.S. and European officials estimating that nearly 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the start of the invasion last February.
Those ranks have been replenished with some 300,000 men after a draft of reservists was mobilized over the fall, but the U.K. on Sunday said that Russian forces over the past two weeks had suffered their highest rate of casualties since the first week of the invasion, when Ukraine stymied a lightning strike on Kyiv and other major cities.
“The uptick in Russian casualties is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources across the front,” the U.K’s Ministry of Defense said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the deputy commander of the National Guard of Ukraine on Saturday. In addition, four deputy ministers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, plus the first deputy minister of economy, were dismissed on Friday, according to Taras Melnychuk, the government’s representative to the Ukrainian Parliament.
No reason was given for the dismissals, but in his nightly address the same day, Mr. Zelensky said an effort to weed out corruption was continuing.
“The state will continue modernizing the institutions, their processes and procedures,” he said. “The clarity in the work of the public structures should be guaranteed not only by what depends on the people but also by the creation of transparency and accountability functionality.”