Standing in front of a row of bodies, still fresh with blood, the festering conflict between Russia’s military forces in Ukraine burst out again into the open as the head of the Wagner group slammed the Russian Ministry of Defence, threatening to pull his forces from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said he would remove his forces by May 10 and demanded the Russian Ministry of Defence replace them in the city which has been at the centre of fierce fighting for months.
Mr Prigozhin is the head of the Wagner group, a private military company which has ties to Russian military and intelligence services, and whose existence was denied by both Prigozhin and the Kremlin until recently.
On Friday, Mr Prigozhin published multiple videos and a letter addressed to top Russian generals and the ‘Supreme Commander’ – Putin. In an expletive-laden rant in front of dead men, he screamed and lashed out at the heads of Russia’s armed forces – Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov - calling those who do not give Wagner fighters ammunition “scum”.
"Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the f****** ammunition?... You b*******, you sit in your expensive clubs, your children enjoy life and film YouTube clips. You think you own this life and you have the right to decide their fates. They [the dead men] came here as volunteers and die so you can enjoy life in your mahogany offices,” he said.
Mr Prigozhin has previously steered clear of directly criticising Russian president Vladimir Putin over military failures, instead laying responsibility for Russia’s grinding war in Ukraine at the feet of army commanders. But by directly addressing the 'Supreme Commander' alongside military chiefs, in his letter and video, Mr Prigozhin now appears to be including him in the group of people who are responsible for Russian setbacks in the war in Ukraine.
“I officially address the Chief of General Staff, the Ministry of Defence, the Supreme Commander and the people of Russia,” Mr Prigozhin said.
“I declare in the name of Wagner fighters…that on 10th May 2023 we must give up our position in Bakhmut to units from the Ministry of Defence and withdraw remaining Wagner forces to rear camps, to lick our wounds. I am taking Wagner units out of Bakhmut because the lack of ammunition means they are doomed to meaningless death," he said.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had seen Mr Prigozhin’s comments but could not “comment on this, because it concerns the special military operation”.
According to Mr Prigozhin, “Wagner’s offensive resources ended at the start of April,” fighters are outnumbered five-to-one and “the deficit of shells is 90%”.
Bakhmut has become a symbol of the ongoing war of attrition in Ukraine and, although it has little strategic value, it has been at the centre of fighting for months. Since February 2022, Russia has failed to permanently hold any key Ukrainian cities while Mr Prigozhin has publicly bragged about what he says are Wagner victories. His latest statement accuses the Russian Ministry of Defence of fleeing from positions which Wagner fighters held, after which “Wagner units fell out of favour with envious bureaucrats near the military”.
In his latest outburst, Mr Prigozhin accused Russia’s military leaders of not providing Wagner forces with enough ammunition and of exaggerating the number of forces the military has in Ukraine.
Unlike the regular Russian army, Wagner fighters are largely comprised of paid mercenaries and conscripts from Russian prisons. Mr Prigozhin was filmed last year touring Russian jails; offering prisoners their freedom in exchange for six months paid military service fighting in Ukraine, warning them “if you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will regard it as desertion and will shoot you”.
The White House has said the group has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including 9,000 deaths, since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 2022. As well as dying in battle, Wagner fighters who have tried to flee the mercenary group have apparently been brutally executed with sledgehammers.
Earlier this year, Mr Prigozhin was filmed freeing prisoners who had served their six months with Wagner and warning them “don’t rape women,” on returning home to Russia.
Mr Prigozhin has previously criticised the Russian Ministry of Defence - the Kremlin was forced to deny rumours of a conflict between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defence after Mr Prigozhin claimed the Ministry of Defence was trying to take credit for capturing the town of Soledar, near Bakhmut, in January.
Mr Prigozhin’s latest outburst is his most critical and vitriolic to date and raises questions as to whether he is making a bid for more power or for more resources for his fighters.
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“Wagner has long had a significant artillery advantage in Bakhmut and received preferential support,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the US.
“The Ministry of Defence is likely now rationing ammunition before Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The ministry has to defend the whole front but Prigozhin only cares about taking Bakhmut.
“Wagner and Prigozhin have always represented a unity of command problem in this war. Putin likes to use competing factions as a way to maintain power but that is very damaging in a military operation,” Mr Lee added.
As the feud between Wagner and the Russian military has become ever more public, war bloggers on Russian social media sites are reporting that former Russian deputy defence minister Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev who was reportedly sacked in April has become a Wagner commander. Mr Mizintsev, has been dubbed the ‘Butcher of Mariupol’ for his role in organising the siege on the city immediately after Putin launched the invasion. Videos online appear to show him visiting a Wagner training camp and the city of Bakhmut.
Mr Prigozhin previously said he had offered him the post with Wagner because the general, while still at the Defence Ministry, had tried to help Wagner with ammunition supplies. The appointment has not been confirmed by the Russian Defence Ministry - it would be highly unusual for any such appointment not to have the backing of the Kremlin.
Wagner forces will stay in Bakhmut until May 10, according to Mr Prizhogin, “so that the holy holiday for Russians – 9 May, Victory Day – will be met with a blaze of Russian weapons”.
Victory Day is an annual holiday in Russia commemorating victory over Nazism during the Second World War. It is normally marked with big military parades in key Russian cities but this year multiple regions have scrapped their celebrations citing security concerns.