Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has announced the mercenary group will retreat from Bakhmut on May 10 if it doesn’t receive critical ammunition supplies.
Ukraine has held onto the war-torn city in the Donetsk region for months, despite an onslaught from Wagner fighters and regular Russian troops.
Directing a lengthy diatribe towards the Russian Ministry of Defence on May 5, Prigozhin claimed military bureaucrats had stopped ammunition deliveries on May 1 to prevent Wagner from capturing Bakhmut out of “petty jealousy”.
“Last month they stopped giving us ammunition and we are getting no more than 10% of our needs,” he stated in a video address.
Standing in front of his armed men, he claimed the Russian Ministry of Defence had created an artificial ammunition deficit despite stocks being available in warehouses. “So our losses were much higher than they should have been,” he added.
Bakhmut has turned into a meat grinder, churning out the bodies of Ukrainians and Russian fighters as both sides fail to secure an advantage. In a previous video from the night before, Prigozhin walked through a field of dead Wagner fighters firing insults at the Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, blaming them for the fatalities.
“Look at them, you bitches! (…) You sit in expensive clubs (…) Your children make YouTube videos (…) You think you have the right to dispose of their lives (…) They came here as volunteers and died so you could gorge yourselves in your offices,” he shouted.
“Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are the f**king shells?” he added.
This is not the first time Prigozhin has attacked Russia’s military leadership. He posted photos of dead Wagner troops in February, again blaming army chiefs for the deaths. The Ministry of Defence denied not supplying artillery to Wagner.
Infighting in the Russian forces has grown as Moscow fails to deliver its prodigious promises. Following the Russian defeat in Lyman last autumn, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov published a virulent criticism attacking the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, and ultimately harming the Kremlin’s narrative that downplayed the loss. Prigozhin backed Kadyrov, inadvertently undermining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership.
“Putin likes to use competing factions as a way to maintain power but that is very damaging in a military operation,” explained military analyst Rob Lee on Twitter.
“If Wagner does eventually take all of Bakhmut, Prigozhin will take credit and emphasise that the Russian military and its leaders didn't take any cities or major objectives during the winter offensive,” he added.
Russia’s only victory since last summer has been the small town of Soledar in a joint effort by Wagner and the Russian armed forces. Prigozhin attempted to claim victory over Bakhmut last month, but this was countered by Ukrainian troops, who said fighting was still ongoing.
The Wagner leader says he will stay in Bakhmut until May 9, in acknowledgement of Russia’s Victory Day holiday. After that, if Wagner doesn't receive supplies, he will be “obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the defence ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds.”
Rob Lee suggests that as Ukraine prepares its much-anticipated counteroffensive, the Russian Ministry of Defence has rationed military supplies to Bakhmut in order to defend the vast front line that extends across four Ukrainian regions.
Ukraine’s decision to hold on to the “fortress city” was met with scepticism by some experts as the cost seemingly outweighs the benefits. Nevertheless, Bakhmut has become a symbol of Ukraine’s strength and determination, despite Ukrainian troops warning of their own ammunition deficit.
Allies have pledged further military supplies in preparation for the counter-offensive. Nato has delivered 98% of its pledged military aid to Ukraine, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on April 27. Amongst the deliveries are 1,550 armoured vehicles, 230 tanks and other equipment, including vast amounts of ammunition.
The Alliance has trained and equipped nine new Ukrainian armoured brigades, which Stoltenberg said will put Ukraine in a “good position” to liberate territories. It is estimated that 30,000 troops make up the new brigades.