Maybe you’ve read of the exploits of Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek general who fought the Romans in the 3rd-Century B.C.E. He’s known best today for the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which describes a battle in which the victors suffer such high casualties that it really amounts to defeat. Today, it could well describe the Battle of Bahkhut in Ukraine, which was just “won” by Russian oligarch Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner Group.

The analogy isn’t perfect. In Pyrrhus’s case, his Roman opponents had more reinforcements and that meant they could more readily recover from their losses. The situation is reversed in Ukraine, where the defenders are outnumbered. But the Russians are also stretched very thin, suffer low morale, and are operating far from home. Moreover, the regular Russians troops are inferior to the Wagner Group mercenaries and have a habit of running away when attacked.

That’s a problem because now that the city of Bahkmut is under firm Russian control, Prigozhin is pulling his troops out for rest and refitting, and they must be replaced with Russian army soldiers.

The prime example of a Pyrrhic victory is the Battle of Asculum which occurred in southeast Italy in 279 B.C.E. Here it is described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as retold by Plutarch is his famous Parallel Lives.

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

Realizing that he could not defeat the Romans, Pyrrhus took his troops to Sicily to wage war there. There have been reports, which Prigozhin has denied, that he will take his Wagner force to Africa where he has been operating in Libya, Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic. Regardless, his troops are leaving Bahkmut for the foreseeable future.

What he’s leaving behind is a destroyed and uninhabitable city which is already facing the threat of encirclement from angry and resolute Ukrainian forces who are “not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained” as they advance on the flanks.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin is warning that Russia has failed in all its objectives, especially their effort to disarm Ukraine.

In a lengthy interview with Konstantin Dolgov, a political operative and pro-war blogger, Prigozhin, the founder and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, also asserted that the war has backfired spectacularly by failing to “demilitarize” Ukraine, one of President Vladimir Putin’s stated aims of the invasion…

…Instead of demilitarization, he said, the invasion turned “Ukraine’s army into one of the most powerful in the world” and Ukrainians into “a nation known to the entire world.”

“If they, figuratively speaking, had 500 tanks at the beginning of the special operation, now they have 5,000,” he said. “If they had 20,000 fighters who knew how to fight, now they have 400,000. How did we ‘demilitarize’ it? Now it turns out that we militarized it — hell knows how.”

And he predicts that Putin’s regime may fall if the war continues on its current trajectory.

“The children of the elite smear themselves with creams and show off on the internet, while ordinary people’s children come home in zinc [coffins], torn to pieces,” he said, according to The Times. “I recommend that the elite of the Russian Federation gathers up, bitch, its youth and send them to war.”

Prigozhin said their “fat, carefree” lives could spark outrage and a “revolution,” leading working-class citizens to storm the elite’s “villas” with “pitchforks.”

That revolution, he concluded, “might end as in 1917,” referencing the Russian Revolution of 1917, when citizens overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

There is a lot of speculation about what kind of dangerous game Prigozhin thinks he’s playing with his scathing criticism of the Kremlin leadership and military brass, but what’s clear is that these are not the words we would expect from a victorious general. They are the words of Pyrrhus who said after the Battle of Asculum, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

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