The Ukrainian military has brushed aside claims by the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force that he will withdraw his fighters from the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, saying the mercenaries were holding firm and receiving reinforcements.
Ukraine’s military said on Friday that Wagner fighters were reinforcing positions in Bakhmut with the likely intention to try and seize the destroyed city before Russia marks the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II on May 9.
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“We are now seeing them pulling (fighters) from the entire offensive line where the Wagner fighters were, they are pulling (them) to the Bakhmut direction,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Ukrainian television.
In a video statement, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said his men had been starved of ammunition by Russia’s defence ministry and that he would withdraw his men and expected the Russian army to take their place in Bakhmut by May 10.
“My lads will not suffer useless and unjustified losses in Bakhmut without ammunition,” Prigozhin said in the video accompanying a written withdrawal announcement addressed to the head of the Russian general staff, the defence ministry and President Vladimir Putin as supreme commander.
The announcement said “bureaucrats” had held back supplies despite knowing that Wagner’s target date to capture the city was May 9 when Moscow holds its Victory Day parade.
The battle for Bakhmut, which Russia sees as a stepping stone to other cities in Ukraine’s Donbas region, has been the most intense of the war, costing thousands of lives on both sides in months of bloody urban warfare.
Despite Prigozhin’s claims of withdrawal, the Ukrainian military has not seen any signs of an imminent withdrawal of Wagner forces from Bakhmut, Ukraine’s military intelligence representative Andriy Chernyak told the RBK-Ukraine news agency.
Ukraine’s military also contradicted Prigozhin’s claim that Russian forces in Bakhmut lacked ammunition.
“Today alone, 520 rounds were fired from artillery of various types in Bakhmut and the surrounding area,” Ukrainian army spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi said.
He said Prigozhin was trying to explain away the deaths of his forces, which were more than 100 a day, through a lack of ammunition.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he was unable to comment on Prigozhin’s threat to withdraw and it was a military matter.
Earlier on Friday, Prigozhin was pictured surrounded by corpses he said were his Wagner fighters, shouting abuse at Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin said Shoigu and Gerasimov must bear responsibility for “tens of thousands of Wagner dead and injured”.
‘Smoke and mirrors’
Months of tirades by Prigozhin have it made clear his words are seldom to be taken at face value, military analysts said.
Prigozhin and his mercenaries are “essential elements of Russian military intelligence, so we don’t believe anything he says”, said Kimberly Marten, a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University who specialises in Russian security issues.
Marten noted that it would be foolhardy for any military commander to “broadcast” their intentions to their enemy five or six days in advance.
“This is all smoke and mirrors, so we are just guessing,” she said.
Yohann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Prigozhin’s statement looked like an attempt to transfer blame for the failure to take Bakhmut and an indication that its capture remained elusive.
Michel also questioned whether Prigozhin had the agency to withdraw without Kremlin permission: “If Putin wants him to be in combat, he’ll force him in one way or another to do so.”
Austrian analyst Gerhard Mangott said if Prigozhin really withdrew, “this would be much too quick for the Russian regular armed forces to take over the positions of the Wagner fighters in and around Bakhmut”.
“If he really means it … this would give the Ukrainian armed forces the opportunity to seize parts, or the whole of Bakhmut from the Russians,” he said, adding this would be a disaster for Putin and Shoigu.
Shoigu did not immediately respond to Prigozhi, but his ministry reported on Friday that he ordered a top official to ensure a “continuous supply” of all necessary weapons and military equipment to Russian troops.
And in a counterpoint to Prigozhin’s visibility, an official video showed Shoigu inspecting tanks and other military equipment destined for Russian troops in Ukraine.
At the end of last year, the United States estimated Wagner had about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts the company has enlisted. In February, the US estimated Wagner had suffered more than 30,000 casualties since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022, with about 9,000 of those fighters killed in action.