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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wagner chief appears to backtrack on threat to pull fighters from Bakhmut

Members of the 59th Motorized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces fire a 152mm Howitzer toward Russian positions in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

By Neil MacFarquhar, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrés R. Martínez

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said Sunday that he had been promised as much ammunition and weaponry as needed to continue the fight for the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, two days after he threatened to withdraw his fighters because Moscow’s Ministry of Defense was failing to support them.

“We have been promised as much ammunition and armament as we need to keep going,” the Wagner group’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, said in an audio statement released Sunday on his channel on the Telegram messaging app. There was no immediate comment from Russia’s defense ministry.

On Friday, Prigozhin launched what was widely considered an effort at brinkmanship, by threatening to withdraw all of his fighters from Bakhmut, accusing Russia’s military bureaucracy of starving him of the ammunition needed to fully capture the city. He had appeared in a gruesome video standing in front of row after row of what he said were freshly killed fighters, saying the ministry had caused “useless and unjustified” losses by failing to replenish the ammunition stocks.

While Prigozhin had complained about ammunition shortages and threatened to pull out of the city before, he had not previously given a date. This time, he named Wednesday — the day after Russia’s Victory Day holiday — as the date when his forces would withdraw and “lick their wounds.” The May 9 holiday celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and has taken on particular resonance in Russia amid its war in Ukraine.

Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, wrote on Telegram on Sunday that he had visited troops in the area of Bakhmut, where he previously said Russia was employing “scorched-earth tactics.” The intensity of shelling has gotten worse, he said, as Russia attempts to seize the city by Tuesday.

“Our task is to prevent this,” he wrote.

Few military analysts expected Prigozhin to carry out his threat, especially because Russia’s Ministry of Defense has no real alternative to the estimated 10,000 Wagner fighters fighting for control of the devastated city, where 70,000 people lived before the invasion.

A sliver of Bakhmut remains in Ukrainian hands, with the Russian Ministry of Defense claiming Sunday that its forces had made further small advances. All the territory Russia has gained during months of grinding conflict in the city has also come at an enormous cost for both sides, including the deaths of thousands of fighters recruited by Wagner from Russian prisons and thrown right onto the battlefield.

Prigozhin also said that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the air force nicknamed “General Armageddon,” had been appointed as his liaison with the military.

If confirmed, the appointment of Surovikin, who developed a close relationship with Wagner while commanding the Russian forces in Syria, could help address the deep-seated tension between the Wagner mercenary forces and the regular Russian army, which has repeatedly interrupted Russian efforts to push forward in Ukraine.

Surovikin was appointed overall commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine last October, which was considered a sign that Prigozhin was gaining influence in the Kremlin. But he was then replaced three months later by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian military.

Prigozhin openly cursed Gerasimov and Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense, in his expletive-laden video Friday. Some analysts have attributed the tensions to rivalries for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor.

Whether the ammunition promised to Prigozhin can be deployed fast enough to change the battle for the city that started in August is an open question. In threatening to withdraw, Prigozhin stressed just how weary his men were of the fight, ready to retreat from the front lines to regroup and recuperate.

But the chances of that seem remote. Ukraine is expected to soon begin a counteroffensive powered by fresh supplies of advanced Western military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers that have already arrived in the country.

Here’s what else is happening in Ukraine:

Drones targeted Crimea, Russia says

Kremlin-installed authorities in Crimea said Sunday that Ukraine had launched a wave of drones on the occupied peninsula overnight, the latest in a string of reported attacks on Russian-held territory before an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Mikhail Razvozhaev, the Russian-appointed governor of the port of Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea and home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet, said that “more than 10” drones were involved in the attack. At least three were destroyed or crashed, he said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that there were no reports of damage.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that a total of 22 Ukrainian drones had been detected over the Black Sea overnight. All of the drones were shot down or disabled, it said in a statement.

The claims could not be independently verified. And Ukrainian authorities, as policy, rarely comment on explosions behind enemy lines.

Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, has been a key conduit for supplies and troops supporting Russia’s occupying forces in southern Ukraine. Attacks and explosions there have picked up in recent months, which military analysts say could help set the stage for a long-anticipated counteroffensive that Ukrainian officials have said is in the final stages of preparation.

In just the past two weeks, refineries and military installations on the peninsula have been targeted. Russian authorities have sought to downplay the attacks, but Ukraine’s military has said that at least one of the attacks was in preparation for its counteroffensive.

A deadly attack in Kherson

Six Ukrainian mine disposal experts were killed when they came under fire from Russian forces while they were working in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said Saturday.

Ukrainian demining experts have regularly been killed and wounded while attempting to clear mines, often laid by retreating Russian forces, but it is unusual for them to be targeted by enemy fire. It was not clear where in the region the incident took place. The report could not be independently verified.

“The State Emergency Service lost a part of its family,” said its chief, Serhiy Kruk, in a post on Facebook, which said that a paramedic and another person had also been injured in the attack. Experts had removed 7,300 mines in the week to Saturday, the service said in a post on the Telegram social messaging app.

Ukrainian authorities have placed Kherson’s regional capital city under a weekend curfew because of unspecified threats posed by Russian forces and to facilitate the unimpeded work of Ukrainian law enforcement and military.

Russia claims it thwarted an attack on a regional airfield

Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, has accused Ukrainian intelligence of planning a drone attack on an airfield in the eastern Ivanovo region of the country, state media reported Sunday.

The Russian state news agency Tass cited a statement from the FSB saying that the agency had “thwarted an attempt to carry out an act of sabotage” using drones filled with explosives. The agency, whose Soviet predecessor was the KGB, said the attack was “masterminded” by Ukrainian intelligence, according to Tass.

Ukrainian authorities did not immediately comment on the claims, which could not be independently verified. The FSB has long been suspected of blaming others for crimes it commits itself. The allegations come days after explosions over the Kremlin, which Moscow claimed were a drone attack aimed at assassinating Putin, without providing evidence. Ukraine has strenuously denied involvement.

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