Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has suffered more than 30,000 casualties since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last February, with about 9,000 of those fighters killed in action, the United States has claimed.
The US estimates that 90 percent of Wagner Group fighters killed in Ukraine since December 2022 were convicts, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a regular briefing on Friday.
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Half of the overall deaths among Wagner mercenaries have occurred since mid-December, as fighting in Ukraine’s eastern city of Bakhmut intensified, according to US intelligence.
Kirby said the mercenary group had made incremental gains in and around Bakhmut over the last few days but those advances had taken many months to achieve and came at a “devastating cost that is not sustainable”.
“It is possible that they may end up being successful in Bakhmut but it will prove of no real worth to them because it is of no real strategic value,” he said, adding that Ukrainian forces would maintain strong defensive lines across the Donbas region.
Kirby told reporters that Wagner continued to rely heavily on convicts, who were sent to war without training or equipment, despite recent comments from Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin that he had stopped recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine.
The United Kingdom’s ministry of defence estimates Russian forces have likely suffered up to approximately 200,000 casualties since the start of their invasion of Ukraine.
“The high Russian casualty rate, especially the high ratio of deaths to injuries, continues to have deleterious effects on the Russian military’s combat effectiveness and is likely prompting Russian officials to continue crypto-mobilization efforts,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said on Saturday.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 17 February 2023
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/79EeudgP5j
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 17, 2023
Meanwhile, Wagner chief Prigozhin has claimed the settlement of Paraskoviivka north of Bakhmut was completely controlled by his forces, the Russian agency Interfax reported on Friday.
Russian military bloggers wrote that Paraskoviivka had been an important node of the Ukrainian defence lines. If the neighbouring villages of Verkhivka Berkhivka and Yahidne were also captured, the Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut could no longer be supplied from the north, the bloggers maintained.
There was no independent confirmation of the Wagner chief’s claim and the Ukrainian general staff’s evening report did not mention the advance on Friday.
The battle for Bakhmut has been raging for months.
Prigozhin also used the Paraskoviivka announcement to take a jab at the Russian Defence Ministry, saying the Wagner advance had succeeded despite an “ammunition blockade”. The fighting, he said, had been attritional and bloody.
Earlier on Friday, the Ukrainian government urged all Bakhmut residents to flee as heavy fighting is expected to continue.
“If you are rational, law-abiding and patriotic citizens, you should leave the city immediately,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in an appeal on Friday to what is believed to be the remaining few thousand people in the battered town. She made her comments on a Telegram channel.
According to the Ukrainian government, five civilians were killed and nine injured earlier on Friday. The city of once 70,000 inhabitants in the Donetsk region now has about 6,000 civilians, Vereshchuk said.
Many elderly residents are holding out because their homes are their only possession and they do not want to leave their birthplace. Some also sympathise with Russia.