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Why Russia’s Wagner Group Leader is ‘Yelling Mutiny’ in Ukraine War

The announced withdrawal of Wagner Group fighters from the town of Bakhmut is another setback for Russia at a crucial moment in its war in Ukraine, exposing an enormous rift between the figures leading the effort just as Kyiv prepares to launch a counteroffensive.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said Friday on Telegram that his mercenary company would leave the city in the Eastern Donetsk region May 10 after he accused Russia’s Defense Ministry of depriving his fighters of ammunition and generally failing in the war effort. 

In a separate video released Thursday night, Prigozhin filmed dead Wagner fighters and cursed at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is overseeing the Ukraine war for Moscow.

“You think that you are the masters of life and you think that you have a right to master their lives, too,” Prigozhin said, pointing to the dead soldiers behind him. “If you give us the normal ammunition, there will be five times less bodies here.”

The accusations underscore a growing internal divide between Moscow and a key ally in the Ukraine war. Prigozhin has also warned that should he pull out, the frontline in Bakhmut would collapse.

Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy who served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Russian forces can backfill any holes left by Wagner Group forces.

But he said Prigozhin is “basically yelling mutiny” ahead of Victory Day, a major holiday honoring Moscow’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to speak in Moscow during celebrations next week.

“This is not anything that Putin or his people want to have to deal with,” Hoh said. “The perception is that things are out of control.”

The chaos Prigozhin’s video unleashed among the Russian military also tells a troubling narrative of the war ahead of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, said Anna Arutunyan, a fellow at the Wilson Center.

“It was a very emotional rant, a very emotional message — he hasn’t screamed at them so directly in the past,” she said. “Prigozhin is fed up. He’s fed up, and I think he’s reflecting a sense of others who are fed up with this.”

“Bodies are piling up. There’s not enough ammunition to go around as Russia prepares for a counteroffensive from Ukraine,” she added. “There’s a deep sense of how this [counteroffensive] is going to pan out.”

Arutunyan, who has written a new book about Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine, said Prigozhin is likely engaging in “emotional blackmail” to win concessions from Moscow. She added that the mercenary leader may reverse course if he gets what he wants.

“What we’ve seen in the past is that he will make these public attacks and then he will back down and say, ‘Yes, they’re giving us more ammunition,’” she said. “So, it’s a matter of how the Kremlin chooses to finesse this and the signals that it wants to send.”

The Kremlin has so far not publicly commented on Prigozhin’s accusations and planned retreat.

But Russian state-run media outlet TASS ran a brief articleFriday quoting a Defense Ministry spokesperson, who said the assault on Bakhmut was pressing ahead.

Wagner Group, known for its meddling in conflicts in Africa and Syria, has played a crucial role in the Ukraine war since deploying fighters to the country in March of last year.

Mercenary fighters helped take the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the Eastern Luhansk region last spring. And Russian forces, led by Wagner Group, began a major assault on Bakhmut in October. The town in the Donetsk region is a strategic point for Russian forces to push further west and seize the Eastern Donbas, the core of Moscow’s offensive launched over the winter.

Wagner Group achieved a minor victory in January when it took the nearby town of Soledar, allowing forces to descend upon Bakhmut from another direction. But they have since only made incremental gains at a huge cost to ammunition and soldiers, including thousands of troops recruited from prisons.

The White House estimates that Russia has lost nearly 20,000 soldiers since December, with nearly half of those killed from Wagner Group

But Wagner Group has also heavily damaged elite Ukrainian units while Russian forces have committed limited armed forces personnel, said Hoh, the Center for International Policy expert.

“Wagner has been very helpful to the Russian army because by using the prisoners, the Wagner mercenary forces fight rather than your regular army forces,” he said.

Prigozhin has been complaining for months about a perceived lack of ammunition. Earlier this year, he sent a representative to Russia’s military headquarters in Ukraine to ask for more supplies and was apparently denied.

Russia has faced an ammunition shortage for more months, but still has significantly more resources and firepower than Ukraine, which is facing its own supply issues. 

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also said Wagner Group has “had a significant artillery advantage in Bakhmut and received preferential support” from Russian military leaders.

“This is likely a reflection of the MoD rationing ammunition before Ukraine’s counteroffensive,” he tweeted, remarking on Prigozhin’s Thursday video. “The MoD has to defend the whole front but Prigozhin only cares about taking Bakhmut.”

Russian military bloggers also said the problem of ammunition shortages and heavy losses are not limited to Wagner Group.

Blogger Igor Girkin wrote on Telegram that “our entire Active Army” is “acutely short of ammunition,” asking who would be left if everyone facing the problem left the front. 

Prigozhin on Friday said he is withdrawing his fighters to the rear to “lick our wounds” but would still eventually deliver victory for the Russian people.

Ukrainian officials have yet to publicly comment on the rant from Prigozhin, who is prone to outbursts on social media and has long courted media attention.

Lera Burlakova, a fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Prigozhin’s announced withdrawal could be a ploy designed to trick Ukrainians.

“It’s very common for Prigozhin to make some kind of hysterical statement,” she said. “I really don’t believe any military figure in Russia is powerful enough to just make his own decisions … without some very serious consequences.”

Source : The Hill