Russia’s Wagner chief ‘pulling his forces out of Bakhmut’ over weapons row with Putin’s government

Russia’s Wagner chief ‘pulling his forces out of Bakhmut’ over weapons row with Putin’s government

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has dramatically announced his intention to withdraw his troops from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in a row over support from Vladimir Putin’s government.

The group, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin – a Putin ally – has been spearheading Russia’s attempt to capture Bakhmut since last summer, in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war in Ukraine so far.

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“I declare on behalf of the Wagner fighters, on behalf of the Wagner command, that on 10 May, we are obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the defence ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds,” Mr Prigozhin said in a statement.

“I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because, in the absence of ammunition, they’re doomed to perish senselessly.”

Given that Mr Prigozhin has given advance notice of the withdrawal, it may turn out that the threat is an act of brinkmanship designed to force Moscow into action, especially as he has frequently posted impulsive comments in the past. However, the stated withdrawal date of 10 May gives defence chiefs just five days to fill the significant gap a Wagner pullout would create. It also threatens to overshadow the annual Victory Day celebrations on 9 May, when Russia commemorates victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Mr Putin is due to address the nation from Red Square on that day.

The Kremlin declined to comment on Mr Prigozhin’s comments, but the state-owned RIA news agency later reported that the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, had instructed one of his deputy ministers to ensure troops had all the weapons they needed.

Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s defence minister, called Mr Prigozhin’s statement “hysterical” – adding that Russian forces continued to heavily pound Bakhmut with artillery on Friday.

“In on one way it didn’t come as a surprise [Prigozhin] has been complaining about the lack of ammunition for quite some time now, the official told The Independent.

"What is quite extraordinary and is quite unprecedented is the format with which he made this most recent statement – it is hysterical. I am not sure what he is playing at

“Maybe it has become clear that they will not be able to take Bakhmut and that is why he is already trying to explain it: if they fail they will have failed because of a lack of ammunition."

He added: “But despite the statement, Wagner continues to pound Bakhmut today and has apparently sent some reinforcements there. For the time being it remains but a statement. What it really means we will have to see.”

The withdrawal was announced in a statement from Mr Prigozhin addressed to the chief of the general staff of the armed forces, the defence ministry, and President Putin as supreme commander. “Wagner ran out of resources to advance in early April, but we’re advancing despite the fact that the enemy’s resources outnumber ours fivefold,” it said. “Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are growing exponentially every day.”

The statement was accompanied by a video in which Mr Prigozhin appeared in full combat gear in front of dozens of his fighters, an automatic rifle dangling from his shoulder.

“My lads will not suffer useless and unjustified losses in Bakhmut without ammunition,” Mr Prigozhin said in the video. “If, because of your petty jealousy, you do not want to give the Russian people the victory of taking Bakhmut, that’s your problem,” he added.

Mr Prigozhin said he expected to face criticism. “After a while, there will be clever people who say that we should have stayed in Bakhmut longer,” he said. “Whoever has critical remarks – come to Bakhmut, you’re welcome, stand up with guns in your hands in place of our killed comrades.”

That statement followed another expletive-filled video published early on Friday in which Mr Prigozhin, surrounded by dozens of corpses he said were the bodies of Wagner fighters, yelled and swore at Mr Shoigu and the chief of the general staff of the armed forces, Valery Gerasimov. He said they were to blame for Wagner’s losses because they had deprived its fighters of ammunition.

“We have a 70 per cent shortage of ammunition. Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the f***ing ammunition?” he yelled into the camera.

Mr Prigozhin shouted that those responsible would go to hell, before saying that Wagner’s losses would be five times smaller if its men had been adequately supplied.

“These are Wagner lads who died today. The blood is still fresh,” Mr Prigozhin said, pointing to the corpses around him. “They came here as volunteers and they’re dying so you can get fat in your offices.”

In another video issued later, he accused Mr Shoigu and General Gerasimov of being responsible for “tens of thousands of Wagner dead and injured” and said he would hold them to account.

Mr Prigozhin began publicly feuding with defence chiefs last year, accusing them of incompetence and of deliberately depriving Wagner of ammunition out of personal animosity towards him as a Putin ally. Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian military intelligence spokesperson, said Mr Prigozhin’s latest remarks show the feud is not over. “The confrontation continues,” he said.

In a further embarrassment for Moscow, Russia’s former deputy defence minister Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev has reportedly joined Wagner as a deputy commander. In two videos posted by pro-war Russian accounts on Telegram, Col Gen Mizintsev – clad in Wagner-branded combat gear – was shown visiting a training camp and touring Russian positions in Bakhmut.

Col Gen Mizintsev, who orchestrated the siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in the early months of the war last year, was dismissed last month, having only been made deputy defence minister in charge of logistics and supplies last September.

The European Union imposed sanctions on Col Gen Mizintsev in June, calling him the “Butcher of Mariupol” for his role in the siege, which devastated the city.

The announcement of the Wagner withdrawal comes at a key juncture in the war, with Ukraine set to launch a long-expected counteroffensive. Kyiv has said it is making final preparations for the assault, but has not said when it is expected to begin in earnest. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said it will be “soon”.

Moscow sees Bakhmut – which had a pre-invasion population of around 70,000 but is now almost entirely abandoned – as a stepping stone to other larger cities in the region of Donetsk. Taking control of the area known as the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, which includes the regions of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk, is a major aim of Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The fierce, months-long battle for Bakhmut has become a matter of outsized political importance for both Moscow and Kyiv, with neither side wanting to be seen to lose it.

For Mr Zelensky and the Ukrainian military, the city has become a symbol of the country’s resistance against Russia’s winter offensive. Moscow’s military chiefs and the Kremlin will be desperate for a battlefield victory to trumpet, given how little progress has been made in Russia’s push for more territory in Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Mr Prigozhin has been claiming incremental gains by his forces around Bakhmut, with Ukraine’s military chiefs saying the situation on the ground was “difficult” for Ukranian troops. But those pronouncements by the Wagner chief have slowly morphed into complaints about a lack of support.

Western allies of Ukraine have been saying for months that they believe Russia could be running short of weapons and ammunition, and defence officials in Moscow have recently asked companies to increase production.

On Wednesday, Mr Prigozhin said he believed that troop movements in support of the counteroffensive by Ukrainian troops had begun to take place, and that his forces were observing heightened activity along the frontline.

“I believe the advance of the Ukrainian army has already begun ... We are seeing the greatest possible activity both on the perimeter and within the frontlines,” Mr Prigozhin said. “I therefore believe that it has all already started. And I believe it will all enter an active phase in the very near future.”

There is little doubt that Wagner forces make up a significant part of the losses Russia has faced in recent months. On Monday, the White House said that US intelligence estimates suggest more than 100,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded just since December.

Half of the 20,000 killed have been members of the Wagner mercenary forces, the majority of whom have been “thrown into combat” in Bakhmut, national security council spokesperson John Kirby said. He added that these fighters lack “sufficient combat training, combat leadership or any sense of organisational command and control”.

Reuters contributed to this report