Head of Russia’s private army Wagner says his troops hand over control of Bakhmut to Moscow

Kyiv, Ukraine — The head of Russian private military contractor Wagner claimed on Thursday that his troops have begun to withdraw from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and hand over control to the Russian military, days after he said Wagner forces had taken the devastated city .

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a convicted criminal and Wagner’s millionaire owner with longstanding ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video published on Telegram that the transfer would be completed on June 1. The Russian Defense Ministry has not confirmed this and it has not been possible to independently verify whether Wagner’s withdrawal from the bombed-out city has begun after a nine-month battle that killed tens of thousands. Prigozhin said his troops would now rest in camps, repair equipment and await further orders.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said on Thursday that regular Russian troops had replaced Wagner units in the suburbs, but Wagner fighters remained in the city. Ukrainian troops maintain a foothold in the southwestern suburbs, she said.

Prigozhin’s triumph at Bakhmut provided a much-needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine has lost momentum in February 2022 and now faces a Ukrainian counter-offensive using advanced weapons supplied by Kiev’s Western allies.

According to Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, that counteroffensive is already underway. He said on Thursday it should not be expected as a “single event” that begins “at a specific hour of a specific day.” Podolyak wrote on Twitter that “dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces” took place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow.

Prigozhin has long feuded with the Russian military leadership, dating back to Wagner’s founding in 2014. He has also developed a reputation for incendiary – and often unverifiable – headlines that he later returns to. During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he repeatedly and publicly accused Russian military leaders of incompetence, failing to properly supply his troops as they led the battle for Bakhmut, and failing to recognize his troops for their successes and sacrifices.

Wagner’s involvement in the capture of Bakhmut contributed to Prigozhin’s position, which he used to express his personal views on the conduct of the war.

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“Prigozhin uses the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to argue for a ridiculous level of influence over Russia’s war effort in Ukraine,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

His frequent critical remarks about Russia’s military achievements are unusual in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, where usually only Putin can make such criticisms.

Seth Jones, director of international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Prigozhin appears to be pressuring Russia’s Defense Ministry to take a more active role and responsibility in Bakhmut, but questioned whether regular troops are able to take over Wagner.

“If you pull those troops out of Bakhmut, you lose your whole kind of first line of offensive and then defensive operations, because the Russians won’t use — haven’t used — their seasoned military forces for major advances, he said. , not wasting skilled troops on areas where they are likely to be killed. So by removing them, the Ukrainians could almost certainly recapture territory.”

With Russian troops suffering high casualties and their inability to integrate their forces, he added, “they just look miserable.”

Nikolai Petrov, senior researcher on Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House, was skeptical of Prigozhin’s claim that the Russian military will take over.

“Nobody knows if that will happen,” Petrov said, adding that Prigozhin is a “populist and he plays the cards of hatred” against ineffective Russian military commanders.

Earlier this week, Prigozhin again broke with the Kremlin’s line over Ukraine. He said his aim to demilitarize the country failed, acknowledged that Russian troops had killed civilians and agreed with Western estimates that he lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bakhmut.

Meanwhile, Russia unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed 36 drones against Kiev in its 12th night airstrike on the Ukrainian capital this month, but the city’s air defenses shot them all down, Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday.

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Kremlin forces also carried out 30 airstrikes and 39 multiple rocket launcher attacks, as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.

In Ukraine, at least one civilian was killed and 13 others injured overnight on Wednesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said Thursday.

In other developments Thursday:

—Russia attacked a dam on the Vovcha River in Karlivka, 40 kilometers (24 mi) west of Donetsk, destroying it and raising a flood risk for three villages, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. The villages could be evacuated, he said on Telegram.

— Russia and Belarus have signed an agreement formalizing the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Control of the weapons remains with Moscow. Putin had announced in March that his country intended to deploy relatively short-range, low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

A UK-based tech company says pro-Russian hackers falsified the location data to form a giant letter “Z” – a symbol of Russia’s war in Ukraine – in the Black Sea. Geollect says location data for commercial ships has been falsified remotely so that ships near Crimea appear to form a 105-kilometer “Z” on open-source maritime tracking sites. Russia captured the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. The false location data increased the risk of collisions, the company warned.

-A total of 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released in another major exchange with Russia, said chief Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak. The eight released officers and 98 soldiers fought in the battle of Bakhmut. The bodies of two foreigners and a Ukrainian were also returned to Ukraine. Prigozhin posted a video of him standing next to two wooden coffins, one draped with an American flag and another with a Turkish flag. Prigozhin said the bodies were handed over to Ukrainian troops and gave the American’s name, but the State Department could not confirm, pending an investigation and due to privacy concerns. Russian officials confirmed the exchange, without giving details of the number of Russians returned.

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— The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that five Swedish diplomats will be expelled from the country. According to a statement, the decision comes in response to Stockholm’s “openly hostile move” to declare five employees of Russian foreign missions in Sweden “personae non grata” in April. Moscow also announced its decision to close its consulate in Gothenburg in September, as well as its “withdrawal of consent” for the activities of the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia and Western countries have often expelled each other’s diplomats since the start of the war.


Morton reported from London.


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