The front line near the village of Bakhmut is currently the most hotly contested area in Ukraine. The true meaning of the city is revealed in Moscow, where it has been chosen as a testing ground by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group.

On the muddy hills south of Bachmut, the line between life and death is usually very thin. For Yaroslav Herwolsky, a soldier in a Ukrainian evacuation brigade, he is sometimes indistinguishable. For two and a half months he has been fighting his way through the mud under artillery fire in order to recover dead or alive colleagues. The job leaves little time for a breather: a successful Ukrainian offensive in mid-December pushed Russian troops back about a kilometer beyond the city limits.

However, this did little to change Herwolsky’s workload, as the Ukrainians continued to mourn dozens of deaths every day. Now the Russians are attacking again and the casualties are piling up. “It’s hard to describe the feeling,” he says. “Forty bodies stacked on top of each other. Diesel, blood and rotting flesh. It’s pure chaos and you never know if you’re next.”

The front line near the small, depleted village of Bakhmut, 70 km north of the city of Donetsk, is currently the most hotly contested area in Ukraine. There is little justification for the deaths of so many people – hundreds a day if you include Russian casualties. The city’s strategic value is limited as it serves only as a water source and transportation hub.

The true meaning of the city is revealed in distant Moscow, where it was chosen as a testing ground by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and his fabled mercenary army, the Wagner Group. With the help of prisoners and mobilized soldiers, Prigozhin has taken command of the Bakhmut Front and is using it to shape his own bloody vision of the future. But not everyone in Moscow is happy about this, especially not the military and political leadership, which the warlord is now criticizing.

For a long time it was not clear to what extent Wagner cooperated with the Russian armed forces. In late autumn, however, the group succeeded in cooperating with the Russian military hierarchy. According to Ukraine’s Eastern Command spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy, this date coincided with the appointment of a new operational commander, General Sergei Surovikin – a hard-liner whom Prigozhin had backed as a candidate.

According to the spokesman, Wagner received increasing support from the regular military logistics network and even began to operate in combat groups alongside elite units of the regular Russian army. The recent setbacks near Bachmut and logistical problems have apparently strained these relations again.

A video published by Wagner at the end of December shows the devastating verbal attack by two of his fighters against the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov. The scarf-masked soldiers appeared to be on duty near Bakhmut and claimed Russia’s top soldier was holding back ammunition.

“We are fighting the entire Ukrainian army here, and where are you? There’s only one word for you, and that’s fag.” Allies condemn the freak out. Prigozhin, on the other hand, later publicly defended his men.

The Ukrainian rocket attack on a barracks in Makiivka, 60 km from Bakhmut on New Year’s Day, sparked fierce criticism of the Russian military leadership among nationalists. Scores of soldiers were killed (most of them had just been mobilized) in the early hours of the attack, which was launched with the help of at least four Himar rocket launchers. While Russia speaks of more than 90 dead, Ukraine puts the number of dead at at least 400.

The eccentric ex-secret service officer Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, who played a key role in the outbreak of war in the Donbass region in 2014, claims to have warned the Russian generals of possible Himar attacks on barracks. “They [the generals] are fundamentally unteachable,” he complained.

While Girkin enjoys a solid following among nationalists, Prigozhin’s runaway worries officials in Moscow far more. Moscow political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya believes concerns grew in October and November when the presidential administration discovered direct contact between the ex-convict and Putin.

“Prigozhin is attacking government institutions with almost revolutionary ideas, which scares many there.” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was regularly criticized by Wagner, did not hesitate and sent his own Patriot mercenary group to fight in the Donbas. According to Ukrainian spokesman Cherevatij, it is still unclear exactly what role the Patriot troops will play. “It is likely that it was sent as a counterpoint to Wagner.”

In recent speeches, Putin has repeatedly emphasized the priority given to regular military leadership. The danger of an uncompromising alternative by Prigozhin doesn’t seem to bother him much, notes Stanovaya. “Putin sees him as someone who can shake up the nation, as a representative of a peculiar civil society.”

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At the moment, the former convict is still firmly anchored in Putin’s circle. If Putin was once believed to be invulnerable, persistent rumors of cancer and doubts about his military judgment suggest that belief is no longer valid. Should the situation in the battle deteriorate significantly, there is a risk of a power struggle.

A new wave of mobilization can now be expected as an immediate reaction to the serious Russian military problems in Ukraine. In Ukraine, it is assumed that this could begin in the next few days. Last week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov suggested there might be a direct link to the imposition of martial law.

As has been the case for months, the brunt of such a wave of mobilization is likely to fall on Bachmut. “First they’re on the ground and the next day they’re back up again, it’s always been like that,” explains Herwolsky. “We keep fighting. But there seems to be no limit to the shit they do in Bachmut.”

This text first appeared under the title “A Russian warlord’s savagery is sending a loud message to Moscow” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

*The post “Forty piled corpses, diesel, blood. It’s pure chaos” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.