Russian military positions around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut are in danger unless mercenaries from the Wagner Group get ammunition urgently, the head of the private company warned.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said Russian front lines could collapse at Bakhmut if his troops did not get the shells and bullets promised by Moscow in late February – the latest sign of tension between the Kremlin and the militia chief.
“For now, we are trying to find out the reason: is it ordinary bureaucracy or betrayal,” Prigozhin said on his Telegram press service on Sunday, referring to the absence of ammunition.
Prigozhin regularly criticizes Russia’s defense chiefs and top generals. Last month, he accused Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and others of “treason” for withholding ammunition supplies from his men.
“If Wagner withdraws from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” said Prigozhin. “The situation will not be favorable for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”
Fighting near Bakhmut has intensified over the past week, with Russian troops attacking from almost all sides.
A Russian victory in the city, with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give it the first major prize in a costly winter offensive after it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year. Russia says it would be a stepping stone to completing the conquest of the Donbas industrial region, one of its main objectives.
But military analysts say Bakhmut, virtually destroyed in the fighting, has little real strategic value.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, said there was no order to withdraw and that “the defenses are holding up” in appalling conditions.
“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is as dire as on the entire eastern front,” Nazarenko said in a video posted to Telegram.
The Ukrainian army said early Monday morning that its forces repelled 95 Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area the previous day.
“The situation in Bakhmut can be described as critical,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a video commentary.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky honored his soldiers in the “painful and difficult” battle for the eastern Donbas region.
“I want to pay a special tribute to the courage, strength and resilience of the soldiers fighting in the Donbas,” Zelensky said.
The Donbas consists of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia claims to have annexed despite never fully controlling them.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War warned that Ukrainian supply routes to Bakhmut were shrinking.
“The Russians may have intended to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, but the Ukrainian command has indicated that it will likely retreat rather than risk an encirclement,” the think tank said.
North of Bakhmut, Russian troops advanced to the town of Bilohorivka, just inside the Luhansk region, and shelled several settlements in the direction of Kupiansk and Lyman, the Ukrainian military said.
In the south, the Ukrainian army said Russian forces were preparing for an offensive in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, shelling dozens of towns and villages, including the city of Kherson, and causing civilian casualties.
‘Refuse to go further’
Near Vuhledar, southwest of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, Ukraine said senior officers of Russia’s 155th brigade, which Kiev says have suffered heavy casualties, refused to comply with orders to attack.
“Brigade leaders and senior officers refuse to continue another futile attack, as demanded by their unskilled commanders – to storm well-defended Ukrainian positions with little protection or preparation,” the Ukrainian army said in a statement.
Military analyst Zhdanov said two “Cossack” Russian units, known as Steppe and Tiger, expressed frustration with their commanders and refused to participate in a new offensive in the hilltop city.
For its part, the Russian defense ministry said Russian forces hit a command center of the Ukrainian Azov regiment in the Zaporizhia region. The claims could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, Russia’s defense chief Shoigu made a rare visit to his forces in Ukraine over the weekend, awarding medals and meeting with commanders.