– We are withdrawing units from Bachmut today, Prigozhin says in a video clip posted on social media.
In the clip, he walks around in military uniform and talks to soldiers in a conflict-torn area.
– We hand over the positions to the military. Ammo and everything.
On June 1, all Wagner soldiers should have left the area, but according to the Wagner leader, some may stay if it proves necessary.
Anger several times
The Wagner Group, a paramilitary mercenary group fighting on behalf of the Kremlin and alongside Russia’s regular forces, has been at the forefront of the bloody battles for Bachmut.
During the roughly eight months that the battle has been going on, Yevgeny Prigozhin has been in a war of words of his own with the military staff in Moscow, directing criticism and heavy accusations against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has said that they have deliberately cut off the resources of his mercenaries and have therefore repeatedly threatened to leave Bachmut abruptly if the situation does not change.
In a clip that circulated on Wagner’s channels a few weeks ago, an angry Prigozhin stood and pointed at dead and maimed men laid out on a lawn.
– Wow! Gerasimov! Where’s my damn ammo, a roaring Wagner leader then asked.
Last summer, the Wagner group received the Kremlin’s permission to recruit prisoners in Russia’s prisons into its units. Countless reports have described how many of these recruits have been immediately run headfirst into the so-called “meat grinder”.
On Wednesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin came out and said that 20 percent of the roughly 50,000 soldiers he claims to have recruited — that is, about 10,000 — have died in battle. Both the number of soldiers and the death toll are difficult to verify, but Prigozhin’s information is significantly higher than the official death toll that Russia has wanted to report.
The Wagner leader had a long interview published the other day in which he deviates from the official line in more ways than one.
– We without further ado entered the territory of Ukraine in the hunt for Nazis. And while we were looking for Nazis, we riveted as many as we could. We got to Kiev and – I say this in pure Russian – screwed up and retreated. Then to Kherson, we skied and retreated. And somehow it doesn’t work for us, he says, according to a rendering by the independent news site Meduza.
Prigozhin further says that Russia’s so-called demilitarization of Ukraine has only led to the militarization of Ukraine. When soldiers’ remains are sent home, one by one, Russia risks a new revolution, he points out.
“Getting new tasks”
Statements like these have no place in Russia’s tightly held media, but Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mandate has grown rapidly over the past year. The question is what his future looks like, in a situation where the Russian army is taking back the dominant position in the war from him and his soldiers.
– We withdraw, we rest, we prepare and then we will receive new information, at least he says himself in his latest film clip.
On the Russian side, it has been established that they have taken control of Bachmut. Wagner wants to emphasize his own contribution in this, while the military barely mentions the group. According to Ukraine, fighting is still going on in the outskirts of the city.
The Wagner group is a private mercenary company with unofficial connections to the Russian state leadership.
Its top leader and chief financier is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former restaurateur from St. Petersburg who has close ties to Vladimir Putin and made a fortune from favorable contracts awarded to him by the Kremlin.
The Wagner group is deemed to have been allowed to carry out missions around the world for which the Russian state or army does not want to take responsibility or have to account for. Under Prigozhin’s corporate umbrella there are also well-known so-called troll factories that have been used in attempts to influence other countries’ elections.
Wagner was first mentioned in connection with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, when soldiers entered there without designation. Later, it has appeared in many countries where Russia seeks influence: Syria, Libya, Sudan, Venezuela, the Central African Republic and others. It is followed by allegations of war crimes.
The Wagner group led a shadowy existence for a long time, but in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has taken a more formal role, alongside and sometimes in some competition with the Russian army. Tens of thousands of its fighters, many recruited from prisons, are estimated to have been killed.
In October 2022, a formal Wagner headquarters was opened in St. Petersburg.