The head of the mercenary group that is leading Russia’s struggling offensive in eastern Ukraine said Friday that his forces will withdraw from the high-profile battle for Bakhmut next week due to a lack of military support.
Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s sudden announcement marked the latest dramatic escalation in his feud with Moscow’s military leadership. It followed a furious tirade in a graphic video Prigozhin posted to Telegram Thursday night, in which he appeared to be surrounded by dead bodies as he blamed defense chiefs for the heavy losses suffered by his Wagner Group fighters.
Hours after his expletive-laden rant, Prigozhin said he would hand over control of the grueling Bakhmut offensive to Russian army forces on May 10 due to a shortage of ammunition supplies.
““I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because in the absence of ammunition they’re doomed to perish senselessly,” he said, adding that his forces would “lick our wounds.”
It was unclear whether Prigozhin’s statement was a serious declaration of intent, given his history of sarcasm and reversals, but either way it appeared to represent a new stage in an internal battle that threatened to undermine the Kremlin’s hopes of progress on the battlefield.
The Kremlin said it had seen his announcement but could not comment.
Wagner fighters have led the Russian assault on Bakhmut, a monthslong campaign that has turned into the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. The city has taken on a symbolic value that may outweigh its strategic importance, though Prigozhin has long accused Russian military leaders of ignoring his requests for more ammunition and other means of support.
On Thursday night he posted a video to Telegram apparently showing him stood over the dead bodies of Wagner fighters, angrily asking Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a profanity-laden rant: “Where are the shells?”
“These are Wagner lads who died today. The blood is still fresh,” Prigozhin said, pointing to the corpses around him. “They came here as volunteers and they’re dying so you can get fat in your offices.”
The United States estimates that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since December, half of those from Wagner. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing this week that Wagner’s fighters had been thrown into combat without “sufficient combat training, combat leadership or any sense of organizational command and control.”
Bakhmut is still under Ukrainian control despite months of artillery devastation and street-to-street fighting with a Wagner force made up of large groups of ex-convicts recruited from prison to serve on the front lines.
“Bakhmut holds” remains a rallying cry among Ukrainian soldiers across the theater of war.
The Russian offensive has left the remaining civilians in eastern Ukraine fearing for their lives in shelters — but Moscow’s forces are far from establishing full control over Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern regions that comprise the vast Donbas industrial heartland.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive is believed to be imminent, with Kyiv hoping to drive Russian forces onto the defensive after holding them up and wearing them down in Bakhmut over the winter.