Ukraine Plans to Send More Weapons to Eastern Front: Live Updates

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Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The combat around Bakhmut, the heavily contested eastern Ukraine city that Russia has spent months trying to capture, is “really severe and savage,” a senior U.S. military official said in a briefing with reporters on Monday.

The two sides are exchanging several thousand rounds of artillery fire each day, while the Wagner Group, the mercenary organization that has been central to Russia’s efforts there, has essentially begun using recruited prisoners as cannon fodder, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.

The recruited prisoners essentially take the brunt of the Ukrainian response while the group’s more seasoned fighters move in behind them to claim ground, the official said.

Bakhmut is at the center of one of the war’s bloodiest campaigns, and Russian forces remain on the offensive. On Monday, Russian-backed forces claimed to have captured Bakhmutske, a village northeast of Bakhmut and beside Soledar, a smaller city about six miles northeast of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian officials said their forces had repelled an attack on Soledar, and Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, described fierce battles with units from the Wagner Group. Russian fighters, she wrote on the Telegram messaging service, “literally step on corpses of their fellow soldiers.”

In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said Russian forces had now “concentrated their greatest efforts” on Soledar, and Ukraine was having to withstand “new and even tougher attacks.”

Mr. Zelensky said that Russia had taken heavy losses in the fighting there. “The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes,” he said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and the founder of Wagner Group, masterminded the effort to recruit prisoners to bolster Russia’s front line forces. Mr. Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has visited Russia’s remote penal colonies to give speeches to inmates, according to videos posted on social media and accounts from prison rights activists.

The speeches lure inmates with high salaries, financial bonuses, death and incapacity payouts and, perhaps most important for some, freedom after six months of service. The Russian state news media reported Mr. Prigozhin’s announcement this month that the first group of pardons had been issued for prisoners who had completed their military service, although the mechanism for such pardons was far from clear.

Since June, Wagner has signed up at least 35,000 prisoners, according to an estimate by Russia Behind Bars, Russia’s main prisoner rights organization. The estimate, which represents nearly 10 percent of Russia’s prewar male prison population, is based on reports from sources in Russian penal colonies and could not be independently verified.


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