Russian military positions around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut are in peril unless mercenaries from the Wagner Group urgently receive ammunition, the head of the private firm warned.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said Russia’s front lines near Bakhmut could collapse if his forces did not get the shells and rounds promised by Moscow in late February – the latest sign of tension between the Kremlin and the militia chief.
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“For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal,” Prigozhin, referring to the absence of ammunition, said on his press service Telegram channel on Sunday.
Prigozhin regularly criticises Russia’s defence chiefs and top generals. Last month, he accused defence minister Sergey Shoigu and others of “treason” for withholding supplies of munitions to his men.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Prigozhin said. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”
Fighting has intensified near Bakhmut over the past week, with Russian forces attacking from nearly all sides.
A Russian victory in the town, with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give it the first major prize in a costly winter offensive after it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year. Russia says it would be a stepping stone to completing the capture of the Donbas industrial region, one of its most important objectives.
But military analysts say Bakhmut, which has been virtually destroyed in the fighting, has little real strategic value.
‘Very much hell-like’
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, said there had been no order to retreat and “the defence is holding” in grim conditions.
“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is very much hell-like as it is on the entire eastern front,” Nazarenko said in a video posted on Telegram.
Ukraine’s military said early on Monday that its forces repelled 95 Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area over the previous day.
“The situation in Bakhmut can be described as critical,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a video commentary.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy honoured his soldiers in the “painful and difficult” battle for the eastern Donbas region.
“I would like to pay special tribute to the bravery, strength and resilience of the soldiers fighting in the Donbas,” Zelenskyy said.
The Donbas is made up of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia claims to have annexed despite never fully having controlled them.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War warned that Ukrainian supply routes to Bakhmut were narrowing.
“The Russians may have intended to encircle Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, but the Ukrainian command has signalled that it will likely withdraw rather than risk an encirclement,” the think tank said.
To the north of Bakhmut, Russian troops advanced towards the town of Bilohorivka, just inside the Luhansk region, and shelled several settlements in the direction of Kupiansk and Lyman, the Ukrainian military said.
To the south, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces made preparations for an offensive in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, shelling dozens of towns and villages, including the city of Kherson, and causing civilian casualties.
‘Refusing to proceed’
Near Vuhledar, southwest of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, Ukraine said senior officers of Russia’s 155th Brigade, which Kyiv says suffered heavy recent losses, were refusing to obey orders to attack.
“The leaders of the brigade and senior officers are refusing to proceed with a new senseless attack as demanded by their unskilled commanders – to storm well-defended Ukrainian positions with little protection or preparation,” Ukraine’s military said in a statement.
Military analyst Zhdanov said two “Cossack” Russian units known as Steppe and Tiger expressed frustration with their commanders and refused to take part in any new offensive on the hilltop town.
For its part, the Russian defence ministry said Russian forces hit a command centre of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment in the Zaporizhia region. The claims could not be independently verified.
Russia’s defence chief Shoigu, meanwhile, paid a rare visit to his forces in Ukraine at the weekend, awarding medals and meeting commanders.