The head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner has stepped up his threats and blamed military leaders in Moscow for his heavy losses in Bakhmut ahead of a looming Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Yevgeny Prigozhin put out a video message showing him standing over rows of dead fighters and launching into a profanity-laced tirade against Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu and its head of the army, Valery Gerasimov, for allegedly denying his requests for artillery shells.
He also repeated threats to pull his fighters out of Bakhmut and said this would happen on May 10 unless Moscow met his demands. Analysts say Russia’s military is probably conserving ammunition, with the Ukrainian counter-offensive in mind.
“These guys are from Wagner PMC and they were killed today,” Prigozhin said, pointing a torch at the rows of bodies and blaming Shoigu and Gerasimov for killing his fighters by failing to deliver weapons.
Prigozhin, whose mercenary force is bolstered with recruits from Russian prisons, has previously leveled similar criticism at the military in an attempt to extract more weapons and resources. So far, however, he hasn’t followed through on his threats.
On Friday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar said that “our soldiers destroyed the ammunition storage facilities of the Wagnerites near Bakhmut”.
Asked about Prigozhin’s video statement on a call with journalists on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had seen the video but would not comment.
Prigozhin’s deadline is significant, since it follows Victory Day, when Russia celebrates the Soviets’ victory over fascism. Putin plans to host a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, and deliver a speech to the Russian public 15 months after he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that was meant to be over in days. Wagner would remain in Bakhmut until then to “avoid shame on this day”, Prigozhin said.
“Wagner has long had a significant artillery advantage in Bakhmut and received preferential support,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. [defence ministry] rationing ammunition before Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
“The [defence ministry] has to defend the whole front but Prigozhin only cares about taking Bakhmut,” Lee added.
Though there has been little apparent response from Moscow, Prigozhin’s camp — made up of hardline political figures leading irregular forces and the army generals who sympathise with them — believe Putin has moved closer to taking their side in recent weeks in pushing for a full military defeat of Ukraine, according to a person close to the warlord.
In April, Putin visited Russian units near the front lines and heard reports from two generals, Alexander Lapin and Mikhail Teplinsky, who had had public fallings-out with the army’s leadership. close to Prigozhin said. “And he came to see the troops without Shoigu and Gerasimov, but to see Lapin and Teplinsky. That’s a clear sign he supports the party of victory.”
But Prigozhin’s public campaign against the defense ministry and attempt to claim the expected success in Bakhmut wound up working against him, the person added.
“They are obviously kicking him out of the victory party. [in Bakhmut] will happen without him,” the person said, adding that this was probably happening because the Wagner leader “wanted the limelight” and “raised the stakes to the maximum”.
The battle of Bakhmut, a city with a prewar population of more than 70,000, has been the longest and bloodiest fight in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s all-out assault on the country in February 2022. Russian forces have struggled to capture Bakhmut but have managed in recent weeks to push Ukrainian forces to a small quarter on the city’s western edge.
Ukrainian soldiers defending Bakhmut have described the battle as “hell”, recounting how Wagner troops charged at them in first world war-style “human waves”. Prigozhin’s forces have also been seen on video brutally torturing and executing Ukrainian prisoners of war there.