Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-offence in Bakhmut could be just days away after the owner of Russia’s Wagner military contractor threatened Friday to withdraw his troops from the city, an expert has told Express.co.uk.
It comes after Moscow’s military command of starving its forces of ammunition.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy entrepreneur with long-term links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed that Wagner fighters had planned to capture Bakhmut by May 9, Russia’s Victory Day holiday celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany.
But they were undersupplied and suffering heavy losses, he said, and would hand over operations to the regular army on May 10.
But Admiral Mike Hewitt Wagner told Express.co.uk the move could be a “drive towards victory” for Ukraine.
READ MORE: Tucker Carlson cracks unemployed joke in first public appearance
He said: “The defense of Bakhmut may signal not only a strategic turning point in the war but the beginning of the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“Once again Ukraine has shown that when they are given the resources they need the Russians are pushed back.
“Putin wants the world to be concerned about escalation when in fact this is the moment when we should deliver Ukraine the much-needed military supplies to drive towards victory.”
It is not the first time Prigozhin has raged about ammunition shortages and blamed Russia’s military, with which he has long been in conflict. Known for bluster, he has previously made unverifiable claims and threats he has not carried out.
Prigozhin’s spokespeople also published a video of him Friday shouting, swearing and pointing at about 30 uniformed bodies lying on the ground. He says they are Wagner fighters who died on Thursday alone, and demands ammunition from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov.
“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin says. “The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”
Yohann Michel, a research analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Prigozhin’s comments should usually be taken with a grain of salt, but “this time I would take a shovel of salt, at least, or maybe a truck”.
But why Prigozhin is threatening to pull his forces out is an open question, Michel said. He might want to regroup without being accused of retreating; he may worry about being fired for not taking the city and prefer to say he left on his own; or he could genuinely need more ammunition.
“The only thing I am taking seriously from that declaration is that Bakhmut is probably not ready to fall,” said Michel, who is based in Berlin.
Wagner has spearheaded the struggle for Bakhmut, the war’s longest — and likely bloodiest — battle. US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday the US estimates that nearly half of the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were Wagner fighters in Bakhmut.
Follow our social media accounts here on facebook.com/ExpressUSNews