Russia's Wagner group chief threatens to withdraw troops from Ukraine over lack of ammunition

Prigozhin said he would withdraw troops from Bakhmut on May 10

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (File) Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary force, speaks in a video message that was allegedly filmed near the city administration building in Bakhmut, Ukraine | Reuters

The owner of Russia's private mercenary group Wagner on Friday threatened to withdraw troops from Bakhmut, Ukraine alleging lack of ammunition supply from the Russian military. Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private mercenary group said in a statement he would withdraw troops on May 10.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a notorious millionaire with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed that Wagner had planned to capture Bakhmut by May 9. That day is a major Russian holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

But, Prigozhin said, his force hasn't received enough artillery ammunition supplies from the Russian military since Monday.

In a statement, Prigozhin said, “I declare on behalf of the Wagner fighters, on behalf of the Wagner command, that on 10 May 2023, we are 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.” The Guardian quoting the statement reported, “I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because, in the absence of ammunition, they’re doomed to perish senselessly.” 

Hours before releasing the statement, Prigozhin's spokespeople published a video of him angrily demanding ammunition from Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov.

In the video, Prigozhin stands in front of around 30 uniformed bodies lying on the ground. He says they are the bodies of Wagner fighters who died on Thursday alone.

Prigozhin speaks in a furious tone and uses numerous expletives in the video. “These are someone's fathers and someone's sons,” Prigozhin says, pointing at the bodies. “The scum that doesn't give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell,” Prigozhin said.

He alleged that Russia's regular army was supposed to protect the flanks as Wagner troops pushed forward but is barely holding on to them, deploying tens and rarely hundreds of troops.

Russia's Defence Ministry did not immediately comment on the claims, and it was not possible to independently verify them.

Wagner ran out of resources to advance in early April, “but we're advancing despite the fact that the enemy's resources outnumber ours fivefold,” Prigozhin's statement said. “Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are growing exponentially every day.”

The Wagner Group has spearheaded the struggle for control of Bakhmut, which is the longest and likely bloodiest battle of the war.

The more than eight months of fighting there is believed to have cost thousands of lives, though neither side is saying how many.

Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates pardons if they survive a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner. Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.

Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometres (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, has tactical military value for Moscow, though analysts say it won't be decisive in the war's outcome.

The city had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial centre.

It is now a devastated ghost town, but it has become an important symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia's invasion, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying its capitulation could begin building international support for a deal that could require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises.

Prigozhin's statement said that Wagner will be forced to pull out of Bakhmut on May 10 and have Russia's regular army take over, because without ammunition, (Wagner fighters) are doomed to a senseless death.

He accused jealous military bureaucrats of denying him ammunition. Western officials and analysts believe Russia has run low on ammunition as the 14-month conflict became bogged down in a war of attrition over the winter, with both sides resorting to long-range bombardments.

It is not the first time Prigozhin has raged about ammunition shortages and blamed Russia's military, with which he has long been in conflict. He has already threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut once, in an interview with a Russian military blogger last week, if the situation with ammunition doesn't improve.

Asked by The Associated Press about Prigozhin's statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had seen references to it in the media but refused to comment further. The Russian military did not immediately comment on the statement either.

Also Friday, an oil refinery in Russia's southern Krasnodar region which borders the annexed Crimean Peninsula briefly caught fire after it was attacked by a drone, Russia's state news agency Tass reported, citing emergency officials. The fire was small and was quickly put out, the report said.

It was the second straight day that the Ilyinsky refinery had come under a drone attack. Drone attacks on oil facilities in Russian regions on the border with Ukraine have been reported almost daily over the past week.

(With PTI inputs.)

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