(Reuters) – The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia said that Ukrainian forces were not abandoning the city of Bakhmut but that, even if they did, he would need more support from the regular military before trying to advance further.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had on Wednesday raised the prospect of a withdrawal from the city, saying Kyiv would take the “corresponding” decisions if its forces risked being encircled by Russian troops.
Wagner forces are leading the battle for the city, which has become the bloodiest of the 13-month war, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said its capture would open up the battlefield and allow Russia to advance further into eastern Ukraine.
But Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has accused the military top brass of ineffectiveness bordering on treason in recent months, said this was still some way off.
“It must be said clearly that the enemy is not going anywhere,” he said on his Telegram channel.
He said Ukrainian troops had organised staunch defences inside the city, particularly along railway lines and in high-rise buildings in the west of the city, and that, if they fell back, they would take up new positions in the outskirts and in Chasiv Yar to the west.
“That’s why, in my opinion, there’s no talk for now of any [Russian] offensive.”
Prigozhin made clear that he was not yet satisfied with the support he was receiving from Russia’s mainstream forces, including those attacking adjacent areas of the front.
He raised three perennial complaints – flank protection, command structure, and ammunition supplies.
“The first question is to make sure that our flanks are well protected (that’s with a big exclamation mark),” he said.
“The second is to make sure that our command is properly organised.”
He said it was a long time since he had seen General Sergei Surovikin, who for several months commanded Russia’s Ukraine campaign before the chief of the general staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, was given overall operational command above him. “I don’t know what he’s up to,” Prigozhin said.
“And third, it’s ammunition (another exclamation mark),” he added, having previously accused Moscow several times of starving his forces of ammunition.
Prigozhin’s heavy use of social media to raise his own and Wagner’s profile and criticise the military establishment has prompted suggestions – which he has denied – that he has political ambitions.
Tensions with Moscow had appeared to subside after his representative was pointedly refused access to the headquarters of Russia’s Ukraine campaign a month ago.