The Wagner Group will face “disaster” in Ukraine next week as their forces are surrounded by Ukrainian fighters in Bakhmut, retired U.S. Army General Mark Hertling predicted on Sunday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” on Ukraine last February, aiming for a quick victory over his Eastern European neighbor. However, after more than a year of fighting, combat remains concentrated in the easternmost regions of Ukraine as several issues including a lack of motivated forces plague Moscow’s ranks. Specifically, the battle over the Donetsk city of Bakhmut has dominated the war dynamic in recent months.
The Wagner Group, founded by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, has fought alongside Russian troops in Bakhmut in hopes of delivering Putin a symbolic victory after months of stagnation. The paramillitary organization is largely comprised of former convicts and was once viewed as a game changer for Russia. But months of intense, bloody fighting for Bakhmut has yielded unclear results for both Russia and Ukraine.
Prigozhin on Saturday claimed victory in Bakhmut, announcing that his troops took full control of the city in a Telegram post. However, Ukraine has rejected that claim, insisting that heavy fighting is ongoing in the city and that their forces still control key aspects of it.
Ukraine provided its latest update on Bakhmut on Sunday, with Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, saying that Ukrainian troops are approaching a “targeted encirclement” of the city. Neither Ukraine nor Wagner’s accounts of the situation on the ground could be independently verified by Newsweek.
Hertling, who served as the commanding general of the United States Army Europe and the Seventh Army, responded to Ukraine’s latest report on Sunday afternoon with a warning for Prigozhin.
“As many of us had said multiple times, Prigozhin is not a professional soldier and neither are his troops,” he wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations, Yevgeny, you’ve put the Wagner flag in the center of the city. And…you’re surrounded.”
He added that the recent developments come after “5 months” of “disaster” for Prigozhin’s forces—and he believes that will continue over the next week as Ukraine and Wagner continue to battle for control of Bakhmut.
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment via email.
Bakhmut has emerged as one of the most intense sites of combat amid the Russia-Ukraine war, with the U.S. estimating earlier this month that 20,000 Russian troops were killed in the city over a 5-month period.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, on Sunday said the parts of Bakhmut controlled by Wagner are “not tactically or operationally significant,” adding that their analysts have not seen geolocated footage backing up claims of a Wagner victory.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an update on Bakhmut to the media on Saturday night. He said Russian and Wagner forces have “destroyed everything” in the city, but did not confirm whether or not Russia won control of the Donetsk settlement.