The leader of Russia’s Wagner Mercenary Corps said troops would be withdrawn from Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 10 due to a lack of ammunition.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s statement came after he posted a video of a top Russian defense official walking among the bodies of slain fighters.
Prigozhin said that “tens of thousands” were killed and wounded there.
Russia has been trying for months to capture the eastern city, despite its dubious strategic importance.
Wagner’s army was heavily involved.
Earlier this week, US National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby cited new declassified information that more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and 80,000 wounded in the fighting in Ukraine since December. Half of the deaths were from the Wagner group.
In a statement on Friday, 61-year-old Prigozhin pointed to the decision to withdraw Bakhmut to the Ministry of Defense using profanity.
“Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where’s the ammunition? … They came here as volunteers and died to be fat in the mahogany office.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov have often been the focus of Prigozhin’s anger amid reports of acrimony between various power circles close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin said in a statement that Wagner’s casualties were “increasing geometrically every day” due to the lack of ammunition.
However, he insisted that Russia would remain stationed there until May 9, Victory Day in World War II, and withdraw from Bahamut the next day.
In a previously released video, Prigozhin stood before his men and said, “We will lick our wounds by transferring the location of the Bahamut settlement to the Ministry of Defense troops and moving Wagner’s remains to the logistics camp.”
“Without ammunition in Bakhmut my friends will not suffer useless and unjustified losses,” he said.
Prigozhin is a publicity seeker, and his influence seems to have waned in recent months. He had previously made threats that he had not followed through, which he later dismissed as jest and military humor.
Last week, he told a Russian pro-war blogger that Wagner’s warriors at Bahamut had a last-day supply of ammunition and needed thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The Kremlin declined to comment on Prigozhin’s recent comments, saying they were related to what Moscow called “special military operations” in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces said fighting was intensifying near Bakhmut.
Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, told BBC Ukrainians: “Prigozin has been trying for months to make defamatory statements to draw attention to himself.”
And Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Russia was working desperately to capture Bahamut by 9 May.
Prigozhin has emerged as a key figure in directing a private mercenary unit leading Russian airstrikes in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022.
He recruited thousands of convicted criminals from prison for his group, no matter how serious their crimes, as long as they agreed to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.
Prigozhin is from St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two probably first met at one of Prigozhin’s restaurants in the city. A few years later, Prigozhin’s catering company Concorde contracted to supply food to the Kremlin, earning it the nickname “Putin’s Chef”.
The Battle of Bakhmut lasted for several months. Wagner’s army and the Russian regular army fought on the same side against the Ukrainian army.
Ukraine decided to defend the city at all costs in an apparent attempt to concentrate Russian military resources on a relatively less important location.
In February, Prigozhin posted another picture of the dead soldiers and blamed the army chief for their deaths.
The Army denied deliberately starving its Wagner Shell group, but responded by increasing supplies to the front lines at the time.
US-based military analyst Rob Lee argues that Wagner’s recent complaints about shortages reflect the Russian Defense Ministry’s ammunition rationing ahead of Ukraine’s long-awaited retaliatory strike.
The Pentagon has to defend the entire front, but Prigozhin’s only concern is the capture of Bakhmut, he wrote on Twitter. Wagner could claim political merit if Prigozhin could take the city, Lee said.
The mercenary captain himself predicted that the Ukrainian counter-offensive would begin on 15 May, when tanks and artillery could advance even in dry weather after the previous spring’s rains.
As a separate measure, Prigozhin hired an army general recently dismissed from the quartermaster’s office.