A Ukrainian service member from a 28th separate mechanised brigade named after the Knights of the Winter Campaign of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, fires an anti-tank grenade launcher at a front line, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmu
By Felix Light and Caleb Davis
(Reuters) -Russia’s main mercenary group announced plans on Friday to withdraw from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, but Ukraine said the fighters were reinforcing positions to try to seize it before Russia marks World War Two Victory Day next week.
Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said his men had been starved of ammunition and would expect the army to take their place in Bakhmut next Wednesday, jeopardising what has long been Russia’s main target in its attempt to carve up its neighbour.
“My lads will not suffer useless and unjustified losses in Bakhmut without ammunition,” Prigozhin said in a video accompanying a written withdrawal announcement addressed to military leaders including President Vladimir Putin.
The announcement said “bureaucrats” had held back supplies despite knowing that Wagner’s target date to capture the city was May 9, the day of the World War Two commemoration.
“If, because of your petty jealousy, you do not want to give the Russian people the victory of taking Bakhmut, that’s your problem,” Prigozhin added in the video.
State-owned RIA news agency later reported that Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had instructed one of his deputy ministers to ensure troops had all the weapons they needed.
The battle for Bakhmut, which Russia sees as a stepping stone to other cities in Ukraine’s Donbas region still beyond its control, has been the most intense of the conflict, costing thousands of lives on both sides in months of grinding warfare.
Ukrainian troops have been pushed back in recent weeks but have clung on in the city to inflict as many Russian losses as possible ahead of Kyiv’s planned big push against the invading forces along the 1,000 km (620 mile) front line.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff said in an evening report that Ukrainian forces repelled more than 30 attacks on the main sectors of the front line on Friday, with Bakhmut and Maryinka to the south seeing the heaviest fighting.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Donetsk region, said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian missiles had struck a heavy machinery manufacturing plant in the town of Kramatorsk and a home furnishing factory in the town of Sloviansk. He said there were no injuries in either attack.
Both towns are west of the front in and around Bakhmut.
Reuters pictures and video from Kramatorsk showed the machinery plant heavily damaged with windows blown out, facades torn off and top floors reduced to a twisted mass of metal and other building materials.
“Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are increasing exponentially every day,” Prigozhin’s statement said. His fighters would be obliged to hand over their positions in Bakhmut to defence ministry units on May 10 and then withdraw to logistics camps “to lick our wounds”, he added.
It was not clear whether Prigozhin, who often makes impulsive comments, would proceed with the withdrawal if his men got more ammunition or if the dispute might be a smokescreen.
A senior Ukrainian official said Russia was bringing Wagner mercenary fighters from along the front line to Bakhmut to capture it by Victory Day.
“We are now seeing them pulling (fighters) from the entire offensive line where the Wagner fighters were, they are pulling (them) to the Bakhmut direction,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Ukrainian television.
The Kremlin declined to comment on Prigozhin’s statement.
Earlier, Prigozhin was pictured surrounded by corpses he said were his men, shouting abuse at Defence Minister Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Prigozhin said Shoigu and Gerasimov must bear responsibility for “tens of thousands of Wagner dead and injured”.
Prigozhin’s vow to pull out of Bakhmut highlighted the pressure Russian forces are under as Ukraine makes the final preparations for a counter-offensive backed by thousands of Western-donated armoured vehicles and freshly trained troops.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said he had ordered the evacuation of villages close to the front line with Ukrainian forces there, saying that Ukrainian shelling had intensified in recent days.
The Ukrainian counterattack is viewed as likely to take in the Zaporizhzhia region, about 80% of which is held by Moscow.
Some residents left the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in cars and buses on Friday, and others stocked up on groceries, before the start of an unusually long weekend curfew.
The announcement of the curfew, to last from Friday evening to Monday morning, has prompted speculation in Kherson that the city is about to be used as a launch point for the counter-attack.
Speaking on return from visits to Helsinki and The Hague, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an address he had won “a powerful reinforcement of weapons for our soldiers – on land, in the air and at sea” as a result of talks with allies there.
Meanwhile, the pace of grain shipments from Ukraine under a U.N.-backed initiative has slowed as concerns grow over ships getting stuck if a deal is not renewed later this month, according to sources and data. Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations failed to authorize any new ships on Friday under the deal.
Russia has suffered few direct attacks during the war, but Russian news agencies reported a second drone attack in as many days on its Ilsky oil refinery on Friday, causing a fire but no casualties. It was not immediately clear who launched it.