The Wagner military contractor, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has threatened to withdraw its troops from the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin accused Moscow’s military command of causing heavy losses to his forces by starving them of ammunition.
Wagner had planned to capture Bakhmut by May 9, Russia’s Victory Day holiday, but its troops are experiencing ammunition shortages. Prigozhin blamed Russia’s military for the issue.
As a wealthy entrepreneur with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin has a history of raging about ammunition shortages and blaming Russia’s military, with which he has long been in conflict.
He has previously made unverifiable claims and threats that he hasn’t carried out, and has publicly accused Russia’s top military officials of incompetence, behavior that is highly unusual in Russia’s tightly controlled political system.
Wagner has spearheaded the struggle for control of Bakhmut, the longest and likely bloodiest battle of the war. More than eight months of fighting is believed to have cost thousands of lives. A pullout by Wagner would be a huge blow to the Russian campaign, and for the Ukrainian side, Bakhmut has become an important symbol of resistance to Russia’s invasion.
Prigozhin’s spat with the Russian military leadership dates back to Wagner’s creation less than 10 years ago. During the war in Ukraine, he has chastised Russia’s top military officials, and one general he actively criticized was fired. Other top officials he has lashed out at appear to have retained the Kremlin’s trust. In January, Putin put General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov in charge of the Russian forces in Ukraine, a move some observers interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size.
Prigozhin alleged that Russia’s regular army was supposed to protect the flanks as Wagner troops pushed forward but is “barely holding on to them,” deploying “tens and rarely hundreds” of troops. Ukraine’s military intelligence representative, Andrii Cherniak, told The Associated Press that Wagner’s forces had clearly failed in their goal of taking Bakhmut by May 9, and Prigozhin had made the statement to “justify their unsuccessful actions.”
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali.
Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates pardons if they survive a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, has tactical military value for Moscow, though analysts say it won’t be decisive in the war’s outcome. The city had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial center. It is now a devastated ghost town.
Prigozhin’s statement said Wagner will be forced to pull out of Bakhmut on May 10 and have Russia’s regular army take over. He said his force hasn’t received enough artillery ammunition supplies from the Russian military since Monday and blamed “jealous military bureaucrats.”
Western officials and analysts believe Russia has run low on ammunition as the 14-month conflict became bogged down in a war of attrition over the winter, with both sides resorting to long-range bombardments.
In addition, an oil refinery in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, which borders the Black Sea, caught fire on Friday.