The owner of the Wagner mercenary group said on Sunday that Moscow “promised” more ammunition and weapons to continue the fight for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
It was a risk the Russian Military command did not want to take.
In an audio message released on Sunday, the owner and financier of the notorious mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, withdrew his threat to pull his troops out of the Bakhmut area, after securing a pledge from the government.
“Last night we received an order to fight (…). They promise to give us all the ammunition and weapons we need to continue operations,” Prigozhin said.
“We are assured that everything necessary will be provided to our flanks (around Bakhmut) so that the enemy does not break through and we are told that we can act in Artiomovsk (the Soviet name for Bakhmut) as we see fit,” he added.
Wagner vs Russian military
In a video message released on Friday, Prigozhin blasted the Russian army leadership and vowed to pull his troops out of Bakhmut, the epicentre of the fighting in Ukraine, if they did not receive more material support.
He also accused the high command of being responsible for “tens of thousands” of Russians being killed and wounded in Ukraine, as the threat of a Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by Western-supplied weapons looms.
The oligarch then asked the Russian Defence Minister on Saturday to hand Bakhmut operations over to Chechen troops headed by Ramzan Kadyrov.
“I ask you to issue a battle order on the transfer, before midnight on 10 May, of the positions of the Wagner group to the units of the Akhmat battalion in the locality of Bakhmut and its surroundings,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a letter published by his press office addressed to the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu.
The head of Wagner said he was making this request “because of a long shortage of ammunition”, accusing the general staff of having supplied him with only 32% of the requested ammunition since October.
A risk that could pay off
Bakhmut has limited strategic value but has taken on great symbolic weight with the duration and unprecedented violence of the fighting.
Wagner’s troops have launched extremely deadly waves of assault against the city, which has been transformed into a field of ruins and is, according to Moscow, more than 90% controlled by Russian forces.
Prigozhin added on Sunday that General Sergei Surovikin would henceforth take “all decisions concerning the military operations in Wagner in cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Defence”.
“He is the only person with the stars of an army general who knows how to fight,” Prigozhin said.
The notoriously ruthless general Surovikin was appointed commander of Russian forces in Ukraine in October, much to the satisfaction of Yevgeny Prigozhin, and coordinated the Russian army’s withdrawal from the city of Kherson.
But he was replaced in January by General Valery Guerasimov, the chief of staff of the army, who is regularly criticised by Wagner’s boss.
A battle between Chechen groups?
On the Telegram messaging service, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov responded to Prigozhin’s comments by saying his fighters were ready to occupy Russian positions in Bakhmut if the Wagner group did indeed withdraw its units.
“Our fighters are ready to move in and occupy the city. It would take a few hours,” Ramzan Kadyrov said, indicating that his troops had already fought alongside Wagner’s in the Ukrainian cities of Popasna, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which Russia had conquered.
If deployed, the Kadyrovites could face off against another Chechen group fighting for the Ukrainian side, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion.
The volunteer group joined the fight hoping to secure Ukraine’s freedom and revenge for past actions Russia has taken against their families and homeland in Chechnya.