By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) – The founder of Russia’s top mercenary group said on Saturday his forces and the regular Russian army wanted to capture the small town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine because it had “underground cities” that could hold troops and tanks. .
Russia’s more than five-month grind to capture Bakhmut has puzzled some Western military analysts, who say the Russian side has suffered heavy losses and built up defenses to allow Ukraine to fall back close to it, meaning a Russian victory. , if it does, it will be pyrrhic.
Yevgeny Prigoshin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group fighting in the Battle of Bakmut, detailed Saturday why he thought it important to capture it.
“The cherry on the cake is the Soledar and Bakhmut mine system, which is actually a network of underground cities. It not only (capable of holding) a large number of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but also tanks. Infantry fighting vehicles can also move.”
Prigozhin, who thinks Moscow’s political capital will rise if Bakmut falls to Russia given Wagner’s role in the fighting there, said the weapons have been stockpiled in underground complexes since World War I.
His comments were a reference to the area’s more than 100 miles of tunnels and vast salt and other mines that contained a large underground room that, in more peaceful times, hosted football matches and classical music concerts.
A White House official said Thursday that Washington believes Prigozhin wants to control the area’s salt and gypsum mines for commercial reasons. There is no mention of their use of underground forces.
Endorsed by the West, Prigozhin cited other advantages of taking Bakhmut, calling it a “serious logistics center” with unique defensive fortifications.
He made his comments on the Telegram channel of his press service as shelling echoed through the deserted streets of Bakhmut on Saturday, despite a self-declared Russian ceasefire to mark Orthodox Christmas, which Kiev dismissed as a ruse.
Bakhmut, known to Russia as Artyomovsk, is the center of the most intense fighting in Ukraine, and Prigozhin expressed his views that another Telegram channel linked to Wagner said that Russia had captured a strategically important settlement on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
Reuters could not independently verify the statement.
Earlier on Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that there was heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the town of Soledar, which hosts a salt mine near Bakhmut, was still under Ukrainian control despite what it described as heavy Russian attacks.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborne; Editing by Christina Fincher)