Wagner Leader Reverses Course on Plan to Withdraw From Bakhmut

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said his decision came after Russian military officials pledged fresh supplies and operational freedom

By Matthew Luxmoore and Ann M. Simmons, WSJ  

In an image taken from a video released by Prigozhin Press Service last week, head of Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin in front of his troops in an unknown location. PHOTO: /PRIGOZHIN PRESS SERVICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The leader of Russian paramilitary group Wagner said he has reversed his decision to fully withdraw from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after pledges from Russian military officials to provide more ammunition and operational freedom to Wagner units that he said had sustained tens of thousands of casualties.

The statement on Sunday by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, came the day after he reiterated his plan to withdraw all Wagner troops from the front lines by May 10, saying that “after seven months of the Bakhmut meat-grinder the Wagner Group has lost its combat potential.”

On Sunday morning, Mr. Prigozhin announced that the Defense Ministry had pledged to supply Wagner with all the arms and ammunition necessary to continue its campaign in Bakhmut, and said General Sergei Surovikin, who was removed in January from his post as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, would mediate between Wagner and the Defense Ministry.

Wagner has spearheaded Russia’s offensive in Bakhmut, which Ukrainian forces are clinging to after months of brutal combat that has taken a heavy toll on both sides, relying largely on convicts recruited from Russian prisons. The White House estimated this week that about half the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were from Wagner.

But the campaign in Ukraine, and Mr. Prigozhin’s very active presence on social media promoting Wagner’s work, have exposed major rifts in Russia’s military command, with Mr. Prigozhin openly criticizing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff of Russia’s armed forces.

The new flare-up of tensions within Russia’s military machine involving Mr. Prigozhin follows a spate of drone attacks on Russian soil this week. The strikes, which have mainly targeted infrastructure used to sustain Moscow’s war effort such as trains, airfields and fuel depots, have put the Kremlin on the back foot ahead of what Western analysts say is an imminent Ukrainian offensive.

Authorities in Russian-held Crimea said more than 10 drones attacked the peninsula overnight into Sunday, including the strategic Black Sea port city of Sevastopol.


Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the region, said air-defense forces and electronic warfare repelled the attack. One drone lost control and crashed in a forest belt, while two others were shot down over the Black Sea, Mr. Razvozhayev said.

Mr. Razvozhayev said there were no reports of damage, including in Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The incidents follow another reported drone attack on Crimea on Saturday. Kyiv hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks but many experts see the assaults as part of the preparations for the widely anticipated Ukrainian offensive.

On Wednesday, two drones crashed into the Kremlin, according to the Russian government, which blamed Kyiv for the attack in the heart of Moscow. The incident sent a glaring signal to Russia about its vulnerability.

The strikes come days before Russia is set to mark Victory Day, the annual May 9 celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to use the holiday to rally support for the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia continued rocket strikes against Ukraine into Sunday. In the southern Kherson region, authorities said six people had been killed as a result of missile attacks on Saturday and into Sunday. In Mykolaiv, north of Kherson, the regional Gov. Vitality Kim said five ship-launched missiles struck an industrial sector and damaged buildings there.

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at matthew.luxmoore@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

May 7, 2023 | Comments »

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