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, the AP reports. 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.
Ukraine's deputy defense minister said Thursday that Wagner units have been replaced with regular troops in the suburbs but that Wagner fighters remain inside the city. Ukrainian forces still have a foothold in the southwestern outskirts, the official said. Prigozhin's Bakhmut triumph delivered a badly needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine now faces the possibility of a counteroffensive using advanced weapons supplied by Kyiv's Western allies. Top Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Thursday that the counteroffensive was underway, cautioning that it should not be anticipated as a "single event" starting "at a specific hour of a specific day." Writing on Twitter, Podolyak said "dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces" were taking place.
Prigozhin has a long-running feud with the Russian military leadership, dating back to Wagner's creation. He has 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 leaders, 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 express his personal views about the war. "Prigozhin is … 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," said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
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