Ammunition shortages that may have forced some soldiers to fight using shovels have fueled new Russian infighting and threatened to undermine what could be the Kremlin’s first major victory in months.
Russian troops continued to advance through brutal close-quarters fighting around the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine despite a lack of ammunition hindering their progress, Western military analysts said over the weekend.
The head of the Wagner mercenary force that has led the campaign, meanwhile, renewed his criticism of Moscow's military leaders over the supply issues and warned that Russia's positions in the area could be in jeopardy if they weren't resolved.
Zelenskyy vows stronger defense amid battle for BakhmutMarch 6, 202301:21
Bakhmut is currently surrounded on three sides after months of bombardment that has laid much of the mining city to waste. The defensive stand has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion; “Bakhmut holds” is a rallying cry heard across the country and in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nightly video address to the nation.
But Ukrainian positions in the east have been worn down by an intensified Russian assault over the winter that has seen a mix of ex-convict Wagner fighters and newly mobilized military reservists thrown into waves of attacks.
The British Ministry of Defense, which posts a daily intelligence briefing to social media, said Sunday that in late February Russian reservist soldiers were ordered to attack a Ukrainian position with "firearms and shovels."
The shovels are likely the same ones used to dig trenches and which have been used on the front line by Russian forces since days of the czars.
"The lethality of the standard-issue MPL-50 entrenching tool is particularly mythologised in Russia," the ministry said. "Little changed since it was designed in 1869, its continued use as a weapon highlights the brutal and low-tech fighting which has come to characterise much of the war."
The ministry added that the increased close-quarter fighting was probably due to a continued focus from Russia's military on deploying soldiers on foot due to a lack of artillery ammunition.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner private military group whose fighters have conducted much of Russia's advance in eastern Ukraine, said over the weekend that "if Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse."
Speaking in a video posted to a Telegram channel called Wagner Orchestra Saturday, he added that "the situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests."
Separately, writing on his company's press service Telegram channel on Sunday, Prigozhin said ammunition that had been promised by Moscow in February had not arrived. He added he wasn't sure whether the delay was caused by "ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal."
The comments were the latest sign of tensions between Prigozhin, who has emerged as a leader of the war's hard-line supporters, and the Kremlin's military brass.
Both sides have faced challenges in supplying front-line troops across Ukraine’s vast countryside with ammunition and equipment, and both appear to be turning to their closest allies for help.
The renewed Russian offensive this year has left the remaining civilians in eastern Ukraine fearing for their lives in shelters — but Moscow’s forces are far from establishing full control over Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern regions that comprise the vast Donbas industrial heartland.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, said Sunday that Ukrainian forces had likely made a partial retreat from Bakhmut, but said it was too early to say whether this would lead to a full withdrawal.
Citing Ukrainian media reports, the ISW said in an analysis briefing that Russian forces had yet to cross the Bakhmutka River and reach the center of the city.
Zelenskyy met with his top military leaders on Monday to discuss the situation. “They spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” a statement from the president’s office said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on a trip to Jordan, played down the importance a possible Russian victory in Bakhmut. "I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value," he told reporters.
"The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight," he said, according to Reuters.
Even if Russia was able to take Bakhmut and use it as a base to threaten surrounding towns and cities, stalling Russian offensives nearby and endemic personnel and equipment problems would likely set the scene for a renewed Ukrainian counteroffensive, the ISW said.
Previously a mining community of around 80,000, Bakhmut now has only a few thousand civilians remaining in it and its surrounding towns, mostly elderly and those unwilling or unable to leave.
Drone footage released Monday by the Ukrainian military showed entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and dust.
But Ukraine’s armed forces said they continued to hold out, for now at least.