Kharkiv, Ukraine — Russian authorities confirmed on Sunday that Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash last week in an explosion widely seen as a long-expected retaliation for the businessman’s failed mutiny. But as the Kremlin continues reigning Wagner in, the one significant victory that Prigozhin gave President Vladimir Putin — seizing the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut — is under threat.
Ukrainian troops have been storming Russian positions near the decimated industrial city and, further south, they’ve finally broken through the first line of Moscow’s defenses to retake the small town of Robotyne.
“Now we can see the Russian supply lines,” said a front-line Ukrainian commander in the region who goes by the callsign Skala. “I’m sure we’ll go faster from here.”
Ukrainian special forces helped clear the way into the town in a brutal battle. Video released by Ukraine’s military shows near misses — and direct hits. In one clip, a soldier steps on a landmine but is evacuated alive, though seriously injured.
“Robotyne has been liberated. Our forces are advancing southeast of Robotyne,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said in televised remarks on Monday.
Robotyne and another small settlement that was retaken in recent days are in Zaporizhzhia — one of four regions Russia unilaterally declared dominion over last year after staging bogus “referendums,” despite not controlling the ground militarily.
The grinding advance along the southern front, as Ukrainian troops encounter Russian forces dug in with miles of trenches and acres of minefields, have fueled debate over Kyiv’s capacity to retake all occupied territory, but some experts say the retaking of Robotyne is clear evidence of Ukraine’s ability to pierce Russia’s defensive lines.
Malyar confirmed that Ukrainian troops were advancing toward Bakhmut from the south, meanwhile, but said they had retaken less than half of a square mile of ground there after a week of fighting. She also noted a concerted effort by Russian forces to take back territory in northeast Ukraine, calling the battle in the Kharkiv region “very intense.”
The weeks of fierce fighting — day and night — are broken only by fleeting moments of joy, like the long-awaited liberation of Robotyne. But the soldiers of the mechanized brigade that reclaimed the village have warned there’s still a long road ahead, and the war is by no means over yet.