The head of the mercenary group leading Russia's struggling offensive in eastern Ukraine said Friday that his fighters will withdraw from the high-profile battle for Bakhmut because of a lack of military support.
The sudden announcement by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, was the latest dramatic escalation in his feud with Moscow's military leadership. It followed a furious tirade in which he appeared to be surrounded by bodies as he blamed defense chiefs for the heavy losses suffered by his fighters.
Hours after his expletive-laden rant, he said he would hand over control of the grueling Bakhmut offensive to Russian army forces next week because of a shortage of ammunition supplies.
"I am withdrawing the units of PMC Wagner from Bakhmut because, in the absence of ammunition, they are doomed to senseless death," Prigozhin said, adding that his fighters would withdraw to camps Wednesday to "lick our wounds."
Visibly angry, he said his fighters were drastically short of ammunition, leading to a direct increase in casualties. Ukraine chose last month to reinforce its defenses in Bakhmut rather than surrender the city, hoping to inflict crucial losses on Russian forces ahead of a counteroffensive.
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Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” for his ties to the Russian leader and his past as a Kremlin caterer, made his announcement dressed in full army fatigues, with an assault rifle hanging from his shoulder.
The video was accompanied by a statement addressed to the head of the Russian general staff, the Defense Ministry and President Vladimir Putin himself.
It was unclear whether it was a serious declaration of intent, given Prigozhin's history of unverified claims and empty threats but, either way, it appeared to represent a new stage in an internal battle that threatens to undermine Russia's hopes of progress on the battlefield.
The Kremlin said it had seen his announcement but would 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 graphic video to Telegram apparently showing him standing over the bodies of Wagner fighters, angrily asking Russian 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.”
However, Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, told the online Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda that he was “skeptical” about Prighozin’s claim. He added that Prigozhin was “lying about the lack of ammunition.”
The United States estimates that more than 100,000 Russian forces 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, many of them ex-convicts, had been thrown into combat without “sufficient combat training, combat leadership or any sense of organizational command and control.”
The furious public feud will come as the latest public embarrassment for Putin, in a week that saw Moscow accuse the U.S. of masterminding a purported Ukrainian drone attack on the Kremlin in a foiled assassination attempt.
Both Kyiv and Washington have denied the claims, which some analysts speculated could be a Russian false-flag operation designed to rally support for the ailing war effort, but others said was more likely an exposure of its vulnerabilities.
The incident came ahead of a major Russian holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II next week. Prigozhin said in his statement that Wagner had planned to capture Bakhmut by Tuesday but had been unable to do so because of a lack of support.
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.
Both sides have suffered heavy losses in and around the eastern mining city, with their forces bogged down in a brutal battle of attrition that has seen Russia make steady incremental gains but fall short of what would be a symbolic victory.
After recruiting prisoners and calling up hundreds of thousands of military reservists last year, the Kremlin has recently stepped up its efforts to find a new wave of voluntary recruits as the war enters a key phase.