The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force threatens to withdraw his troops from the key battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine as casualty rates mount while Ukraine’s military authorities say Russian forces have been unable to cut their supply routes to the front-line city.
Losses in Bakhmut are five times higher than necessary because of a lack of artillery ammunition, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an interview with Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov published on Saturday.
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“Every day we have stacks of thousands of bodies that we put in coffins and send home,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin said he has written to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu asking for ammunition as soon as possible.
“If the ammunition deficit is not replenished, we are forced – in order not to run like cowardly rats afterwards – to either withdraw or die,” he said.
The withdrawal of some fighters from Bakhmut would be likely, but he warned that this would mean the Russian front line would collapse elsewhere.
In an audio statement published on the Telegram messaging app account of his press service on Saturday evening, the Wagner boss said he had lost 94 fighters due to a lack of ammunition.
“It would have been five times fewer if we had more ammunition,” said Prigozhin, who has previously accused Russia’s regular armed forces of not giving his men the ammunition they need. He has also accused Russia’s top brass of betrayal.
A Ukrainian military spokesperson said on Saturday that Russian forces have been unable to cut off its supply lines to the Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, reported the Wagner chief as stating that his forces have received 800 of the 4,000 shells per day that they had requested from Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
Prigozhin also said the long-awaited counteroffensive by Ukraine will begin before May 15 and he lamented that Russian forces are not hurrying to prepare for the expected onslaught, according to the institute.
“Prigozhin’s threat to withdraw from Bakhmut may also indicate that Prigozhin fears that the Russian positions in Bakhmut’s rear are vulnerable to counterattacks,” the institute said.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) April 29, 2023
‘Road of life’ to Bakhmut
Russian forces have been trying for 10 months to punch their way into the shattered remains of what was once a city of 70,000. The battle of attrition for Bakhmut has become known as the “meat grinder” due to its high casualty rates.
“For several weeks, the Russians have been talking about seizing the ‘road of life’ as well as about constant fire control over it,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukrainian troops in the east, said in an interview with the local news website Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.
“Yes, it is really difficult there, … [but] the defence forces have not allowed the Russians to cut off our logistics,” he said.
The “road of life” is a vital route between ruined Bakhmut and the nearby town of Chasiv Yar to the west, a distance of just more than 17km (10 miles).
The supply of provisions, weapons and ammunition is secured, Ukrainian forces were maintaining their positions along the road and engineers had already laid new roads to Bakhmut, Cherevatyi said.
“All this allows us to continue holding Bakhmut,” he said.
If Bakhmut fell, Chasiv Yar would probably be next to come under Russian attack, according to military analysts, although the city is on higher ground and Ukrainian forces are believed to have built defensive fortifications nearby.
Ukraine has pledged to defend Bakhmut, a city Russia sees as a stepping stone to attack other Ukrainian areas.