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Russian mercenary chief 'promised ammunition' after threatening Bakhmut retreat

Yevgeny Prigozhin changes course days after he launches a furious tirade blaming Moscow’s military leaders for heavy losses in the eastern Ukrainian city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, at a funeral in Moscow on April 8, 2023.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, in Moscow last month.v.v.smolnikov / AP file

Days after he launched a furious tirade against Russia's military leadership and threatened to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut, the head of mercenary group has said it would continue to lead the offensive on the city in eastern Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner Group, a private army that has been invaluable to Russia’s efforts, said in an audio message posted to Telegram that Russian officials had “promised the amount of ammunition we’d need to continue fighting.

“They have sworn to us that we will be provided with everything necessary in the flanks to not be cut off by the enemy.”

Prigozhin, a billionaire oligarch who is known as Putin’s chef for his past role as a caterer to the Kremlin, said that the group had been assigned Gen. Sergei Surovokin to oversee Wagner’s actions and mediate between the mercenaries and Russia’s Defense Ministry.

Surovokin is a longtime ally of Prigozhin, who was briefly Russia’s overall commander in Ukraine at the start of 2023 and had been previously accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo when he led Russian forces in Syria. 

His message came days after he threatened, in another Telegram video, to hand over control of the grueling Bakhmut offensive to Russian army forces because of a shortage of ammunition.

Surrounded by what appeared to be bodies, he said, in an expletive-laden rant, that he would withdraw Wagner units, which he said were doomed to a "senseless death."

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 that is believed to be imminent.

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 small, steady gains but fall short of what would be a largely symbolic victory.

A win for either side would offer a huge morale boost and could rally support from respective allies, providing momentum to shift a front line that has remained largely static for months.

Sustained pressure on Bakhmut formed part of Russia’s winter offensive that had the capture of Ukraine’s industrial heartland as its focus. But the campaign has been held back by muddy conditions and military failings, despite Moscow’s call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists and Wagner’s widespread use of ex-convicts.

Some Western analysts have criticized Kyiv’s decision to continue contesting the city, arguing it should have pulled back weeks ago in a move that would have allowed Russia a short-term win but preserved Ukrainian soldiers for its own looming counteroffensive.