Wagner boss suggests Russian ‘betrayal’ in bloodiest battle
AAP and Daily News
The founder of Russia’s mercenary force has suggested “betrayal” as he demands ammunition from Moscow for the grinding battle in Bakhmut.
Just days ago the Wagner force had claimed it was on the brink of taking the Ukrainian city in what has been one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war.
But in the latest sign of a feud between the private militia and Russia’s military, Wagner’s boss complained his troops were running out of firepower and demanded more ammunition.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said Russia’s position was in peril and blamed his army’s lack of basic war resources on “ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal”.
Meanwhile, Ukraine said its troops were still holding out in the brutal fight while the US said even if Bakhmut fell it would not necessarily give Russia momentum in the war.
Russia is trying to encircle Bakhmut to secure what would be its first major gain in more than six months.
The intense battle has depleted both sides’ artillery reserves, with thousands of shells fired daily along the eastern and southern fronts.
Ukraine’s European allies are working on a deal to procure more ammunition for the fight. Ukrainian troops have reinforced positions west of Bakhmut in apparent preparation for a possible retreat but so far appear not to have decided to pull out.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would not predict when or if Ukrainian troops might leave the city but that its fall “won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight”.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Mr Austin said.
Russia says capturing the city would be a step towards its major objective of seizing the full territory of the surrounding Donbas region.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut, said there had been no order to retreat and “the defence is holding,” albeit in grim conditions.
“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is utter hell, as it is on the entire eastern front,” Mr Nazarenko said in a video posted on Telegram.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said his top military commanders were “in favour of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening positions in Bakhmut”.
Wagner sent tens of thousands of convicts recruited from Russian prisons into battle around Bakhmut.
As his rift deepened with Russia’s top brass, Mr Prigozhin said he had written on Sunday to the commander of the Ukraine campaign “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition”.
On Monday morning (local time) he said his representative at operational headquarters had his pass cancelled and had been denied access.
Since the start of 2023, the Ukraine campaign has been commanded personally by Russia’s top general, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Mr Prigozhin claimed last week that his men had practically surrounded Bakhmut.
But on Saturday he appeared in a video with a gloomier assessment, warning that the front would collapse should Wagner be forced to retreat – although it was not clear when the video was recorded.
He has previously accused ministry officials of “treason” for failing to supply adequate ammunition to his forces, something the ministry has denied.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s 10th assault brigade, Mykyta Shandyba, told Ukrainian television “it was clear” Russian forces faced a shortage of ammunition that had limited their advances in Bakhmut.
However, he said Russia’s attacks had intensified in recent days, with groups of 30 people trying to break through Ukrainian defence lines.
“They failed so far,” he said.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has kept a low profile for most of the war, has been on a rare visit to his forces in Ukraine in recent days, awarding medals and meeting commanders.
On Monday, he visited the eastern city of Mariupol, largely destroyed by Russian forces last year after a months-long siege.