Ukraine Live Updates: Zelensky Addresses Munich Security Conference

Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The head of the Wagner private military company says he expects that it will be months before the long-contested Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is captured, making it highly unlikely that Russian commanders will be able to hand a big victory to President Vladimir V. Putin before next week’s anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Wagner mercenaries have helped lead Moscow’s brutal monthslong campaign to seize Bakhmut, bombarding the city since the summer in what has become one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. Although the city’s strategic value is debatable, Bakhmut carries symbolic importance for both Ukraine and Russia. Both sides have justified their focus on the city by claiming that the protracted battle is sapping the military strength of their opponent.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have enveloped Bakhmut from the north, south and east, but Ukrainian troops have held on by relying on the remaining supply roads to the west of the city. While Russian forces have tightened the claw around Bakhmut, the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, urged patience.

“To take Bakhmut, you need to cut all the means of supply — it’s still a big task,” Mr. Prigozhin told Russian military bloggers on Thursday. He said that the city was unlikely to be captured before March or April.

As the Feb. 24 anniversary of the invasion approaches, Western analysts see the fight for Bakhmut and the surrounding area as a prelude to, or the early stages of, a broader new Russian offensive. The Kremlin has poured troops into the battle for the city, which is considered key to Mr. Putin’s stated goal of seizing the entire area of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas. Ukraine has also rushed reinforcements to the area.

But the grinding fight in Bakhmut has raised questions about Moscow’s military tactics and its ability to sustain a large-scale ground assault.

Mr. Prigozhin’s assessment echoed those of many Western analysts and pro-war Russian military bloggers. “Russian forces do not appear to be quickening their rate of advance around Bakhmut,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said on Thursday.

An ally of Mr. Putin’s, the Wagner founder has in recent months cast his fighters as Moscow’s most capable forces. At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin has attacked Russia’s military leadership, emerging as one of the most prominent pro-government critics of the war’s conduct. In his remarks to military bloggers on Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin blamed Russia’s military leadership for the pace of progress.

“There is an enormous amount of problems, and we must solve them,” Mr. Prigozhin said.

Former Russian inmates, recruited by Wagner with the promise of pardons, have suffered heavy casualties on the front lines in Bakhmut. This month, Mr. Prigozhin said that Wagner was stopping recruitment in prisons and suggested that the enlistment would be conducted directly by the defense ministry.

In a veiled jab at Russia’s defense ministry, Mr. Prigozhin told the bloggers on Thursday that losing the ability to recruit from prisons was “bleeding” Wagner of its “offensive potential.”

Marc Santora contributed reporting.

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