A senior Kyiv army official on Tuesday, Dec. 27, claimed that Kremlin ground assaults against the lynchpin fortress city of Bakhmut have been stopped cold, as multiple reports surfaced of a growing artillery shell shortage in Russia’s forces.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said in widely-reported television comments that the Russian military has massed "its greatest concentration of force" across the entire front to support attempts to capture Bakhmut, but that tough Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) defenses in and around the city in Donbas have halted Kremlin attacks completely.
"Our fighters are inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and he cannot advance further…now the enemy is attempting to encircle the city, but that also is not working out for him," Malyar said.
Russian Federation (RF) forces in August kicked off concerted assaults on Bakhmut led by the Wagner military group, a Kremlin-sponsored private army manned by mercenaries and felons volunteering from Russian prisons.
However, Russian forces made slow progress over the Summer and Fall, and by late November advances had slowed to a few meters a day in the face of AFU fortifications and artillery fires.
Two Wagner artillery gunners on Monday in an unprecedented public video said Russian attacks against Bakhmut were getting nowhere and assault groups were being cut to pieces, and blamed the Russian army’s top brass for failing to supply Wagner’s gun crews sufficient shells to shoot at the Ukrainians.
One Wagner soldier accused by name Russian Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov of willfully preventing the delivery of artillery ammunition to Wagner formations "to let our guys die."
A second masked fighter claimed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered howitzer and mortar shells be delivered to regular army units, although it was the privately-run Wagner that is "doing all the fighting" around Bakhmut.
Public criticism of the Russian military chain of command by service personnel is punishable by imprisonment. The soldiers in the video wore masks.
Russian social media have, followed by state-controlled news outlets, reported a growing shortage of howitzer shells and mortar rounds throughout Russian forces deployed in Ukraine, for weeks. The pro-Russia blogger Two Majors in a Sunday post said ammunition depots in the Ukraine theater of operations are close to empty due to very heavy shell expenditures over the Summer and Autumn, and repeated successful AFU long-range missile strikes blowing up shell storage sites.
The head of the Wagner Group, Sergey Prigozhin, on Monday confirmed reports of ammunition shortages in the Bakhmut sector specifically, and blamed Moscow generals for forcing troops to suffer heavy losses by depriving them of "proper" artillery support.
A Prigozhin video published on his personal Telegram channel on Monday showed the former Kremlin chef shaking hands with the two Wagner gunners. None wore masks.
In a subsequent audio statement, Prigozhin appeared to challenge Gerasimov and Shoigu directly, saying "(T)he problems of the front aren’t being listened to by people sitting in warm offices, and when you drag the corpses of your comrades every day, and see them for the last time, then ammunition supplies are very badly needed."
A Prigozhin video posted Sunday showed the private army director standing in front of a cemetery and praising Wagner war dead for giving their lives for Russia for the "liberation" of Donbas cities like Bakhmut.
The Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on Monday published a situation update saying that Russian forces had halted their attacks in Bakhmut and were attempting to regroup.
The pro-RF Telegram channel WarGonzo on Tuesday reported Ukrainian forces in some sectors around Bakhmut had shifted onto the offensive and launched counterattacks.
Two Ukrainian combat units operating in the Bakhmut sector, 10th Mountain Assault Brigade and Azov Special Operations Brigade, on Monday published video and photographs seeming to show heavy and possibly crippling casualties suffered by Wagner troops attacking across open ground.
Other images appeared to document the capture of multiple RF army prisoners by AFU troops.
All sources said AFU front line positions were still under heavy fire and that AFU casualties - in some cases persons well-known to the Ukrainian public - were mounting.
According to a Monday Facebook post by his wife, Anton Kolymyets, a former weather announcer for the Kherson city Skifiya television channel, was killed in fighting around Bakhmut over the weekend. He joined the AFU in February as a volunteer and was the father to two children, she said.
A Sunday Telegram post in a gaming industry channel reported Volodymyr Yezhov, a lead designer in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game franchise, died in combat around Bakhmut last week.
Set in an irradiated wasteland modeled on the real-life Chornobyl exclusion zone, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was the first Ukraine-developed FPS game to break into the international mainstream.
Yezhov had been one of Ukraine’s the best-known software developers.
Malyar said RF forces likely would attempt a new round of attacks on Bakhmut after reinforcements, because of a Kremlin directive to conquer all of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk Regions by the end of the year.
If the attacks come Ukrainian forces are prepared to stop them, she said.