Ukraine releases video appearing to show Russian troops beating own wounded officer

Ukraine has released extraordinary video footage that appears to show Russian fighters dragging their badly wounded commander away from the battlefield, and then beating him violently with what appear to be shovels.

A Ukrainian drone captured the incident near the eastern city of Bakhmut, where intense fighting has been raging for months. Four soldiers from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group carry their colleague through a landscape of ruined houses, holding his arms and legs.

They then dump him next to a barn. A second video appears to show three men then hitting him repeatedly with shovels. The fate of the injured commander is unclear. But the episode tallies with persistent reports of low morale among Russian mercenary units.

Ukrainian soldiers fighting in and around Bakhmut have described how Wagner troops attack in waves. They are reportedly threatened with execution if they fail to advance and are mown down in large numbers, their corpses littering the frontlines.

A drone unit from the Seneka special platoon shot the footage earlier this week. It was released on Ukrainian social media channels on Monday.

Speaking in his nightly address, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Ukrainian units were repelling repeated Russian attempts to encircle Bakhmut and break through its defences.

“We are countering them. I am grateful to every warrior who ensures counter-action with his resilience,” he declared. Zelenskiy said he had discussed the “key issue” of ammunition supply in a meeting on Monday with his army staff.

Over the weekend, sources inside Zelenskiy’s own Servant of the People party suggested Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, would be moved out of his job. This followed a corruption scandal in which the ministry paid two or three times the supermarket price of food to supply frontline troops.

On Tuesday, it appeared Reznikov was staying put. Ukraine’s national security and defence council, parliamentarians and some western allies argued it was the wrong time to remove him, ahead of an expected Russian counter-offensive. It is uncertain how long Reznikov might remain in post.

In a tweet, Reznikov said he was “holding the line”. He added: “Thank you all for your support, as well as constructive criticism. We draw conclusions. We continue the reforms. Even during the war.”

According to the centre for defence strategies, a Kyiv thinktank, the Russian military command has recently changed its tactics in Bakhmut. Soldiers were now launching continuous and rolling assaults that sometimes lasted “for 10 hours”, it said.

Wagner detachments, together with troops from Russia’s 106th airborne division, were trying to storm Ukrainian positions on the northern outskirts. There was heavy fighting on the east of the city. In the south, Russian forces managed to advance 500 metres after a surprise attack, the thinktank reported.

Ukraine’s hold on Bakhmut appears increasingly precarious. Most analysis believe Ukrainian units will be forced to withdraw if Russian troops capture the T0504 highway – a key supply route – or break through to the Berkhiv reservoir.

The town has little strategic importance but enormous symbolic value, ahead of the first anniversary on 24 February of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of the country. Ukraine has massively fortified the nearby cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where the bulk of its eastern forces are concentrated.

Last autumn, Ukraine launched two spectacular counter-offensives. It seized back almost all of Kharkiv oblast in the north-east of the country, and the regional capital of Kherson in the south, plus surrounding territory on the right bank of the Dnipro River.

Since then, however, Russia has regained the initiative. It has made slow but steady progress towards Putin’s goal of “liberating” the Donbas. That means gaining control of all of Donetsk province and the last remaining pockets of Luhansk oblast still in Ukrainian hands.

The head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has personally led a campaign to recruit criminals from Russian prisons to fight on the eastern frontline. He has claimed credit for Russian tactical gains in the region, including the capture last month of the Ukrainian town of Soledar, immediately north-east of Bakhmut.

A second prison tour to drum up additional soldiers has been less successful, as reports of the atrocious casualty rate in Ukraine filter back to Russia. Ukraine’s parliament and the US have designed Wagner an international criminal organisation.