Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, said in a sudden and dramatic announcement on Friday that his forces would leave the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut that they have been trying to capture since last summer.
Prigozhin said they would pull back on May 10 - ending their involvement in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war - because of heavy losses and inadequate ammunition supplies. He asked defense chiefs to insert regular army troops in their place.
“I declare on behalf of the Wagner fighters, on behalf of the Wagner command, that on May 10, 2023, we are obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the defense ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds,” Prigozhin said in a statement.
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“I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because in the absence of ammunition they’re doomed to perish senselessly.”
Wagner has been spearheading Russia’s long and costly attempt to capture Bakhmut and Prigozhin said three weeks ago that his men controlled more than 80 percent of the city.
But Ukrainian defenders have held out, and Prigozhin has vented increasing anger at what he describes as lack of support from the Russian defense establishment.
It was not clear if his latest statement could be taken at face value, as he has frequently posted impulsive comments in the past. Only last week he withdrew one statement he said he had made as a “joke.”
Earlier on Friday he appeared in a video surrounded by dozens of corpses he said were Wagner fighters, and yelling and swearing at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He said they were to blame for Wagner’s losses because they had starved it of ammunition.
“We have a 70 percent shortage of ammunition. Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the ******* ammunition?” he shouted into the camera.
“For the tens of thousands killed and wounded, they will bear responsibility in front of their mothers and children, I will achieve that.”
His tirade contained a torrent of expletives that were bleeped out by his press service.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he could not comment on Prigozhin’s statement.
Bakhmut, a town of 70,000 people before the start of the war, has taken on huge symbolic importance for both sides because of the sheer intensity and duration of the fighting there.
The Wagner withdrawal was announced in a statement addressed to the head of general staff, the defense ministry, and President Vladimir Putin as supreme commander.
It was accompanied by a video from Prigozhin in which he appeared in full combat gear in front of dozens of his fighters, an automatic rifle dangling from his shoulder.
“Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are increasing exponentially every day,” the statement said.
“My lads will not suffer useless and unjustified losses in Bakhmut without ammunition,” Prigozhin added in the video.
“If, because of your petty jealousy, you do not want to give the Russian people the victory of taking Bakhmut, that’s your problem.”
The statement also asked Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov to replace Wagner forces in Bakhmut with Russian troops.
The stated withdrawal date of May 10 gives defence chiefs just five days to fill the gap a Wagner pullout would create. It also threatens to overshadow national celebrations on May 9, when Russia commemorates victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two and Putin is due to address the nation from Red Square.
Prigozhin said he expected to face criticism.
“After a while, there will be clever people who say that we should have stayed in Bakhmut longer,” he said. “Whoever has critical remarks - come to Bakhmut, you’re welcome, stand up with guns in your hands in place of our killed comrades.”
He also promised that Wagner would be back: “We will lick our wounds, and when the Motherland is in danger, we will rise again to defend it. The Russian people can count on us.”