Head of Russian private army Wagner says his forces are handing control of Bakhmut to Moscow
Military medics give first aid to wounded Ukrainian soldiers at a medical stabilisation point near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Susie Blann, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, May 25, 2023 5:14AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 25, 2023 3:05PM EDT
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) - The head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner claimed Thursday that his forces have started pulling out of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and handing over control to the Russian military, days after he said Wagner troops had captured the ruined city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner's millionaire owner with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video published on Telegram that the handover would be completed by June 1. There was no immediate comment from the Russian defense ministry.
It was not possible to independently verify whether Wagner's pullout from the bombed-out city has begun after a nine-month battle that killed tens of thousands of people. Nor was there any explanation from Prigozhin about why he was taking the step.
Ukraine's deputy defense minister said Thursday that Wagner units had been replaced with regular troops in the suburbs but Wagner fighters remained inside the city. Ukrainian forces still have a foothold in the southwestern outskirts, Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar said.
Prigozhin's Bakhmut triumph delivered a badly needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has lost momentum and now faces the possibility of a Ukrainian counteroffensive using advanced weapons supplied by Kyiv's Western allies.
According to top Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, that counteroffensive is already underway. He said Thursday that it should not be anticipated as a “single event” starting “at a specific hour of a specific day.”
Writing on Twitter, Podolyak said that “dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces” had “already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow.”
Prigozhin has a long-running feud with the Russian military leadership, dating back to Wagner's creation in 2014. He has also built a reputation for inflammatory - and often unverifiable - headline-grabbing statements that he later backtracks on.
During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he has repeatedly and publicly chastised Russia's military leadership, accusing them of incompetence and failure to properly provision his troops as they spearheaded the battle for Bakhmut.
Wagner's involvement in the capture of Bakhmut has added to Prigozhin's standing, which he has used to set forth his personal views about the conduct of the war.
“Prigozhin is â€¦ using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said.
His frequent critical commentary about Russia's military performance is uncommon in Russia's tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin can usually air such criticism.
His flat statement of what he would do over the next week in Bakhmut came a day after he again broke with the Kremlin line on Ukraine. He said its goal of demilitarizing the country had backfired, acknowledged Russian troops had killed civilians and agreed with Western estimates that he lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, Russia unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed 36 drones against Kyiv in its 12th nighttime air assault on the Ukrainian capital this month but the city's air defenses shot down all of them, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday.
The Kremlin's forces also launched 30 airstrikes and 39 attacks from multiple rocket launchers as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.
At least one civilian was killed and 13 others were wounded in Ukraine on Wednesday and overnight, the Ukrainian presidential office said Thursday.
In other developments Thursday:
- Russia and Belarus signed a deal formalizing the procedure for deploying Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Control of the weapons will remain with Moscow. Putin had announced in March that his country planned to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus.
- A U.K.-based technology firm says pro-Russia hackers have faked the location data of ships to form a giant letter Z - symbol of Russia's war in Ukraine - in the Black Sea.
Geospatial intelligence company Geollect says that since May 14, location data for commercial ships has been remotely spoofed so that vessels near Crimea appear to form a 65-mile (105-kilometer) long “Z” on open-source maritime tracking sites.
The Crimean peninsula was seized by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.
The firm said the hoaxers likely used radio frequency signals to mimic vessels' Automatic Identification Systems, without the crews' knowledge. The false location data increased the risk of collisions, it said.
- The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that five Swedish diplomats are to be expelled from the country. A statement said the decision is a response to Stockholm's “openly hostile step” to declare five employees of Russian foreign missions in Sweden “personae non grata” in April. Moscow additionally announced its decision to close its consulate in Goteborg in September, as well as its “withdrawal of consent” to the activities of the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg.
Morton reported from London.