The chief of Russia’s Wagner Group has accused a Russian military unit of fleeing positions near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, in his latest scathing attack against Moscow’s military leadership.
“Today, everything is being done so that the front line crumbles. Today, one of the defence ministry’s units fled one of our flanks, abandoning their positions. Everyone fled,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had earlier threatened to pull his fighters out of Bakhmut on May 10 if he does not receive badly needed ammunition.
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In a video released on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday, Prigozhin said troops were fleeing because of the “stupidity” of Russian army commanders.
“A soldier shouldn’t die because of his leaders’ absolute stupidity,” he said. “The commands they receive from the top are absolutely criminal.”
Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement later in the day that “assault troops” – normally a reference to Wagner units – were “continuing to fight in the western part” of Bakhmut.
The ministry said Russian paratroopers “provided assistance”, but did not mention Prigozhin’s accusation of soldiers abandoning their posts.
Wagner has spearheaded Moscow’s fight for the eastern Ukrainian city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 people, but in recent weeks, internal divisions have deepened, with Prigozhin repeatedly blaming Russia for failing to send his group enough weapons.
The Bakhmut battle is the longest and bloodiest of the Ukraine war so far, with each side losing thousands of soldiers.
Also on Tuesday, Prigozhin said he and his mercenaries would be seen as traitors if they left their positions.
In his messages shared on Russia’s Victory Day – the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II – Prigozhin said that he had received a “combat order” on Monday, saying if Wagner fulfilled its threat, the move would be regarded as “treason against the motherland”.
“[But] if there is no ammunition, then we will leave our positions and be the ones asking, who is really betraying the motherland? Apparently, the one [betraying the motherland] is the person who signed [the order to supply too little ammunition],” he added, but underlined he would yet call for more ammunition for a “few more days”.
Despite his rage towards Russia’s military leaders, Prigozhin has never directly criticised Vladimir Putin.
An ally of the president who was known as “Putin’s chef” because of his company’s Kremlin catering contracts, Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the West for his role in Wagner.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Moscow had failed to capture Bakhmut despite a self-imposed deadline of May 9 to give Putin a trophy in time for Russia’s Victory Day celebrations.
Moscow regards capturing Bakhmut as a stepping stone towards taking other cities in Ukraine’s industrial east, but Western observers say its fall would not represent a major win for Moscow or change the battlefield.