Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in a video published Thursday that Russia’s mercenary group has started pulling its troops out of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
“We are withdrawing the units from Bakhmut. From today at five in the morning, May 25 until June 1, most of the units will rebase to camps in the rear. We are handing our positions to the military,” he said.
The video was initially posted on Telegram by his press service, showing him dressed in battled gear in a war-damaged neighborhood.
It was posted to Twitter by Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, who supplied English subtitles. “And here are two men we leave to the military,” Prigozhin says in the video, bringing a duo into frame whom he introduces as “Bieber” and “Dolin.” (See photo.)
“So as soon as the military gets tough, they’ll stand up to the Ukrainian army,” the Wagner leader adds with his arms across the shoulders of the pair. “That’s it. If something happens, they’re here.”
Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef” for his close ties to the Russian President and his role as a caterer to the Kremlin, has repeatedly voiced criticism of Russia’s military.
Further, it is often unclear whether Prigozhin is serious about his intentions because he has a history of unverified claims and empty threats.
On May 4, he’d posted a video where, surrounded by bodies, he’d declared that he would hand over control of the offensive in Bakhmut to the regular army the next week. Three days later, he withdrew his threat to leave.
This past Wednesday, Prigozhin said more than 20,000 of his fighters have died in the nine-month battle to take Bakhmut.
The battle for Bakhmut has been the longest and among the deadliest conflicts in the 15-month-old Ukraine-Russia War. The city has been a long-sought prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin because possession of the regional transport and logistics hub by Russian forces could open up an advance on two bigger Ukrainian cities in the Donetsk region: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
While Russia has declared “victory” in Bakhmut, the Kremlin has also this week reportedly sent more troops there to replace the Wagner mercenaries with regular soldiers.
The Ukrainians, however, have refused to declare defeat, insisting that their forces still hold a small part of the city.
Around 70,000 people lived Bakhmut before the Russian invasion 15 months ago. A reported more than 100,000 people have been killed or injured in the struggle to control the small city, with entire neighborhoods razed to rubble.