Wagner mercenaries have detained a Russian army officer who allegedly tried to lay mines in the path of the group’s retreat from Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the shadowy private military company, has been at loggerheads with the Russian defence ministry for months over the assault on Bakhmut, but the reported detention of the officer raises the stakes in their confrontation.
Over the weekend, Prigozhin accused the Russian military of laying mines around Bakhmut as the Wagner fighters who had captured the town were leaving the area.
A video posted by Prigozhin’s press office on social media late on Sunday showed a man who identified himself as Lt Col Roman Venevitin, commander of the 72nd Brigade of the Russian armed forces, who confessed to leading the mining operation that endangered the Wagner fighters.
The man, who appeared with a bruised face, said he also opened fire on a Wagner vehicle while drunk.
Asked about his reasons, the officer mentioned “personal animosity” but struggled to fully explain it, before apologising to the mercenaries.
Sirena, an independent Russian news site, confirmed the man’s identity and military rank by using leaked military databases.
Wagner on Sunday published a report filed by one of its commanders saying that their fighters had to stop around the village of Opytne on May 17 when they stumbled upon anti-personnel mines laid by Russian soldiers.
“The Wagner unit started the de-mining but had to halt the operation at around 3pm when they came under fire by the Defence Ministry soldiers,” the report said, adding that Wagner fighters “had to deal with the aggression and detain them”.
Prigozhin posted the video of the Russian officer “confessing” to shooting at the Wagner fighters, saying it was a “cherry on top” that proved the veracity of their report.
After finally gaining full control of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut last month after months of gruelling fighting, Prigozhin said he would be withdrawing his mercenaries and letting Russia’s regular forces take over.
The Russian defence ministry has not commented on his detention.
On Monday, a person claiming to be a representative of the Liberty of Russia Legion, a group of Russian men fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, suggested Prigozhin hand over the officer in exchange for the Russian troops and border guards they took captive in a cross-border raid this weekend.
The person said “Russians should not shedding Russian blood”.
The Wagner chief later on Monday turned down the offer, insisting that the officer was not a prisoner of war.
“He has been detained and (later) handed over for an investigation,” he said in a statement. “We definitely are not going to swap any Russians for other Russians.”