There are roughly 6,000 Wagner group mercenaries fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told US lawmakers on Wednesday.
“They’re conducting combat operations right now in Bakhmut primarily. It’s probably about 6,000 or so actual mercenaries and maybe another 20 or 30,000 recruits that they get, many of whom come from prisons,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “And they are suffering an enormous amount of casualties in the Bakhmut area; the Ukrainians are inflicting a lot of death and destruction on these guys.”
The battle over Bahkmut has turned into a “slaughter-fest” for the Russians, Milley said.
“The Ukrainians are doing a very effective area defense that is proven to be very costly to the Russians. For about the last 20, 21 days, the Russians have not made any progress whatsoever in and around Bahkmut,” he said. “So it’s a slaughter-fest for the Russians. They’re getting hammered in the vicinity of Bahkmut and the Ukrainians have fought very, very well.”
The head of the Russian private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in an audio message earlier Wednesday that the battle for the city “has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian army,” but added that Wagner has “been pretty battered” as well.
Milley also addressed Russia’s allies: China, Russia and Iran are “moving closer together” and will be a persistent problem for years to come, Milley said.
He said that he’s concerned about “any coherence and cohesion between Russia and China,” and that the two countries are “getting closer together.”
“I wouldn’t call it a true full alliance in the real meaning of that word, but we are seeing them [Russia and China] moving closer together, and that’s troublesome,” Milley said. “And then if you add in Iran … those three countries together are going to be problematic for many years to come I think, especially Russia and China because of their capability.”
Last week, China’s leader Xi Jinping met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. China in recent weeks has repeatedly attempted to portray itself as an aspiring broker of peace, reiterating its calls for a ceasefire and peace talks in a vaguely-worded position paper released last month. Western countries have viewed Beijing’s intentions with deep suspicion, and NATO’s chief said that the alliance has seen “some signs” that Russia is pressing China to provide lethal aid.
CNN’s Rob Picheta, Simone McCarthy, Darya Tarasova and Sarah Dean contributed reporting to this post.