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Wagner boss threatens to pull out of Bakhmut, slams Russian military

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, leaves a cemetery before the funeral of Russian military blogger Maxim Fomin in Moscow last month. (Yulia Morozova/Reuters)
8 min

In a sharp escalation of the rivalry between Russia’s disparate military forces in Ukraine, the head of the Wagner mercenary group announced Friday that he would withdraw his fighters from the still-raging battle for Bakhmut over a lack of ammunition.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin released a statement and video on his Telegram channel demanding that Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, sign an order indicating when the military would replace Wagner forces in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that Russia has been trying to seize since last year. He said he would withdraw his forces on May 10.

“I am withdrawing the Wagner PMC [private military company] units from Bakhmut because in the absence of ammunition, they are doomed to senseless death,” Prigozhin said, wearing camouflage and a helmet, an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder. He stood with dozens of masked Wagner fighters, some wearing full-face skull masks. Prigozhin did not mention where the video was recorded, but it appeared to be somewhere in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

The bitter public recriminations are just the latest in a long-simmering power struggle between Russia’s battlefield leaders and highlight the difficulties the country faces in increasing military production as it braces for an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive in the coming weeks.

Prigozhin said his forces had no choice but to retreat to rear bases to “lick their wounds,” though it remains to be seen if he will indeed order a withdrawal — a move that would be catastrophic for Russia’s long and bloody campaign to take Bakhmut and would likely tarnish the reputation of Prigozhin, a well-connected oligarch who made a fortune through state contracts before founding the mercenary group.

“Whoever has criticisms, you’re welcome to come to Bakhmut and stand with weapons in your hands instead of our killed comrades,” Prigozhin said, while acknowledging the technical need for a military order for Wagner’s withdrawal.

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov predicted that Wagner would not pull out May 10 because of the time required for such a handover. If Prigozhin were to follow through, Markov said, he could face arrest and the potential destruction of Wagner — his formidable private army that has helped extend Russian influence across Africa and the Middle East, and whose fighters are now central to the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine.

What is the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit in Ukraine?

Withdrawing “would be a great mistake, but a lot of mistakes have been made,” Markov said in an interview. “I imagine the Ministry of Defense would be quite happy if the Wagner Group disappeared. Then the resources of the Wagner Group would be taken by someone else.”

Overnight, Prigozhin’s press service posted an extraordinary video on Telegram in which he stood next to the bodies of dozens of Wagner fighters killed in Bakhmut, then launched into a furious, obscenity-laden tirade accusing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov of supplying his forces with only 30 percent of the ammunition they needed.

Prigozhin’s main accusation was that military officials, jealous of Wagner’s battlefield successes, were intentionally depriving the group of ammunition to prevent it from conquering the city before Russia’s symbolically important Victory Day on May 9, commemorating the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.

His statement Friday went further, asserting that Wagner was getting only 10 percent of required ammunition, not 30 percent.

Prigozhin vowed to make sure that Shoigu and Gerasimov would bear responsibility for tens of thousands of men needlessly killed and wounded in what he called “a heavy, merciless, bloody war.”

“Their unprofessionalism is destroying tens of thousands of Russian guys. This is unforgivable,” he said.

Prigozhin’s outburst may also be an effort to shift the blame for Wagner’s failure to seize Bakhmut before Victory Day, which would have given President Vladimir Putin something to celebrate in his speech from Red Square.

Wagner has been battling to seize Bakhmut since last summer. As its losses have piled up, Prigozhin’s open struggle with Russian military leaders has intensified.

Drone video released by Ukraine's 93rd Mechanized Brigade on April 22 shows explosions and smoke rising over Bakhmut. (Video: Reuters)

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, defended Prigozhin on Friday in comments on Telegram, saying he “deserves respect for the invaluable contribution” of Wagner forces in eastern Ukraine. Kadyrov also said his fighters were “ready to move in and take the city” if Wagner pulls out of Bakhmut.

Markov said Prigozhin has become so popular that it is difficult for anyone to criticize him.

“Of course, the Defense Ministry is quite jealous of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and of course they don’t like this success story of Wagner,” Markov said. But he discounted the possibility of a plot to starve Wagner of shells.

“I think the Russian army leaders want to keep reserves in the face of coming attacks from the Ukrainian army, so they’re not giving enough shells not only to Wagner but also to other units of the military.”

Russia needs more troops but is wary of public anger, leaked documents say

Prigozhin’s statement also painted a picture of chaos and miscommunication on the battlefield, claiming that Russian troops that were supposed to support Wagner’s flanks in Bakhmut were ineffective and deployed in lower numbers than officially claimed.

“Instead of tens of thousands, there are tens and seldom hundreds of fighters,” he said.

According to Western intelligence estimates, Wagner deployed about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, many of them prisoners who were offered pardons in exchange for taking up arms.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday that nearly half of the estimated 20,000 Russian forces killed since December were Wagner fighters struggling to take Bakhmut.

Prigozhin has shared videos of dead Wagner fighters before on Telegram, but his open rage and his snarling vitriol toward Russian military officials was highly unusual.

“These are the guys of the PMC Wagner. They were killed today. Their blood is still fresh,” he said. “Film them all,” he told an assistant, who panned across the bodies laid out in rows.

“Shoigu, Gerasimov,” he shouted, “these are somebody’s [expletive] fathers and somebody’s sons! And those [expletive] who don’t give us ammunition will be in hell eating their guts!”

“They came here as volunteers and are dying for you so that you can have a wealthy life and sit in your redwood offices. Keep that in mind,” he continued, glaring furiously into the camera.

Ukraine defended Bakhmut despite U.S. warnings in leaked documents

Though he has no official military title, Prigozhin is Russia’s most visible battlefield leader, frequently posting videos of himself clad in military gear, meeting his fighters or making announcements on the battlefield as explosions echo in the background.

His willingness to take personal and political risks to support Wagner has endeared him to his men, who see themselves as the most competent elite unit in Ukraine. It also contrasts vividly with Shoigu, Gerasimov and Putin, who are rarely seen near the front lines.

Prigozhin’s statement bluntly pointed at Russian military failures and claimed credit for saving Russia’s military operation.

“A series of failures of the Russian Ministry of Defense in various parts of the front” last year led to an October decision for Wagner to conduct “operation Bakhmut meat grinder” to divert Ukrainian forces, Prigozhin said.

“After these events, the Wagner PMC units fell out of favor with envious military bureaucrats. An artificial ammunition starvation began,” he claimed.

One prominent nationalist military blogger with the handle Zapiski Veterana posted on Telegram that if Wagner did withdraw, it would be “due to stupidity, sabotage and possibly open betrayal on the part of Russian officials.”

The Kremlin has previously tried to play down the conflict between Prigozhin and defense officials, even as the Wagner leader’s criticisms have become more strident.

In January, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said reports of an internal conflict were “the product of information manipulation” that was “organized by our enemies in the information sphere.”

But he appeared to take a subtle dig at Prigozhin, adding, “But sometimes our friends behave in such a way that we don’t need enemies.”

On Friday, Peskov said the Kremlin was aware of Prigozhin’s statement but declined to comment.

Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, said Friday that they were investigating how their military lost control of a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone over central Kyiv on Thursday — setting off air-raid sirens, activating air defenses and drawing small-arms fire in the capital.

Videos showed the drone plummeting in a fiery ball after it was struck by Ukraine’s air defense forces. Initially, it appeared to be a Russian attack — what would have been the second that day, after Russian forces sent more than 20 self-destructing drones to attack Ukraine in the early morning.

Ukraine’s air force revealed hours after the episode that the aircraft was in fact one of its own that had “lost control.” But why the drone went astray is still unclear, Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.