Wagner, the head of a Russian private military contractor, announced Thursday that he had begun withdrawing his forces from eastern Ukraine’s Bakhmut and handing control over to the Russian military, days after he said Wagner’s troops had captured the devastated city.
Wagner millionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long-standing ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a Telegram video that the handover would be completed by June 1. There was no immediate comment from the Russian Defense Ministry.
It could not be independently verified whether Wagner’s withdrawal from the bombed city began after the nine-month battle that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said Thursday that Wagner units have been replaced by regular troops in the suburbs, but Wagner fighter jets remain inside the city. Ukraine’s armed forces still have a base in the southwestern outskirts, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.
Mr. Prigogine’s victory in Bakhmut brought a much-needed victory to Mr. Putin, whose February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has lost momentum and now faces the possibility of a Ukrainian counterattack using advanced weapons supplied by Kiev’s Western allies.
Mykhailo Podoliak, a top adviser to Ukraine’s president, said Thursday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is already underway, warning that it should not be expected as a “single event” that begins “at a certain time on a certain day.”
Writing on Twitter, Podoliak said that “dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces” “have already taken place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow”.
Mr. Prigogine has a longstanding conflict with the Russian military leadership dating back to Wagner’s creation. He has also developed a reputation for inflammatory, and often unverifiable, headline-grabbing statements that he later retracts.
During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he repeatedly and publicly chastised Russia’s military leadership, accusing them of incompetence and failing to adequately support his troops as they led the battle for Bakhmut.
Wagner’s participation in the capture of Bakhmut was added by Mr. Prigogine’s position, which he used to present his personal views on the conduct of the war.
“Prigogine … uses the perception that Wagner was responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to defend an absurd level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
His frequent critical comments on Russia’s military activities are rare in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, where only Mr. Putin can usually make such criticisms.
His simple announcement of what he will do next week in Bakhmut came a day after he again broke the Kremlin line on Ukraine. He said his goal of demilitarizing the country had backfired, acknowledged that Russian troops had killed civilians and agreed with Western estimates that he had lost more than 20,000 people in the battle for Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, Russia unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed 36 drones against Kiev in its 12th overnight airstrike on the Ukrainian capital this month, but the city’s air defenses destroyed them all, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday.
Kremlin forces also launched 30 airstrikes and 39 attacks from multiple rocket launchers, as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.
At least one civilian was killed and 13 others were injured in Ukraine on Wednesday and overnight, the office of the President of Ukraine reported on Thursday.
This is reported by the Associated Press.