The head of Russia’s private army, Wagner, said his troops would hand over control of Bahmut to Moscow
KYIV, Ukraine — The head of Russian private military contractor Wagner said on Thursday that his troops had begun withdrawing from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and handed over control to the Russian military, days after Wagner forces seized the ruined city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of Wagner, who has long ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video posted on Telegram that the handover would be completed by June 1. There was no immediate comment from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
It could not be independently verified whether Wagner’s withdrawal from the bombed city had begun after a nine-month battle that left tens of thousands dead.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said on Thursday that Wagner units had been replaced by regular troops in the suburbs, but Wagner fighters would remain in the city. Ukrainian forces still have a foothold in the southwestern outskirts, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.
Prigozhin’s Bahmuti triumph was a much-needed victory for Putin, who has lost steam from the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and now faces the possibility of a Ukrainian counterattack using advanced weapons supplied by Kiev’s Western allies.
Ukraine’s chief presidential adviser Mikhajlo Podoljak said Thursday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was already underway and warned that it should not be seen as a “single event” that “starts at a specific hour on a given day.”
On Twitter, Podoljak said that “dozens of actions aimed at destroying Russian occupation forces” “were taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow”.
Prigozhin has a long-standing feud with the Russian military leadership dating back to the creation of Wagner. He also gained a reputation for his inflammatory – and often uncontrollable – headline-grabbing statements.
During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he repeatedly and publicly rebuked the Russian military leadership, accusing them of incompetence and inadequate care for his troops while leading the battle for Bahmut.
Wagner’s involvement in the capture of Bahmut added to Prigozhin’s standing, which he used to express his personal views on the conduct of the war.
“Prigozhin … uses the notion that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bahmut to argue for mindless influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
His frequent critical comments about Russian military performance are not uncommon in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which usually only Putin can issue such criticism.
His flat statement about what he would do next week in Bahmut came a day after he again broke with the Kremlin’s line on Ukraine. He said his goal to demilitarize the country had backfired, acknowledged that Russian troops had killed civilians and agreed with Western estimates that he had lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bahmut.
Meanwhile, the Russians launched an Iranian-made Shahed 36 drone attack on Kiev in the 12th overnight airstrike against the Ukrainian capital this month, but the city’s air defenses shot them all down, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday.
Kremlin forces also carried out 30 airstrikes and 39 attacks from multiple rocket launchers, as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.
On Wednesday and during the night, at least one civilian was killed and 13 others were wounded in Ukraine, the Ukrainian presidential office announced on Thursday.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Thursday that five Swedish diplomats would be expelled from the country.
According to the statement, the decision is a response to Stockholm’s “openly hostile move”, which in April declared five employees of the Russian foreign mission in Sweden “personae non grata”.
Moscow also announced its decision to close its consulate in Gothenburg in September, as well as the “withdrawal of consent” to the activities of the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine here