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Massive split in Russian military forces as Wagner vows to quit Bakhmut on May 10

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KYIV — The war of words between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian defense ministry escalated on Friday, with the paramilitary group’s financier filming himself raging at Moscow and threatening to pull out of the key battleground town of Bakhmut.

In a statement published by Prigozhin’s press service, Wagner commanders accused Russia’s defense ministry of artificially creating shell shortages for their mercenaries and causing mass casualties. Wagner’s statement accuses the Kremlin of being jealous of its forces’ successes on the front lines, particularly after defense ministry units were forced to retreat from Kharkiv and Kherson during Ukraine’s September 2022 counteroffensive.

“We were supposed to take Bakhmut by May 9. And knowing that, military bureaucrats almost completely cut our shell supplies on May 1,” the statement claimed.

Wagner’s statement was released several hours after Prigozhin himself published an explicit video rant he filmed on May 4, in which he stands beside the bodies of dozens of Wagnerites and directly dresses down Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov.

“Those are soldiers we lost today. Their blood is still fresh,” Prigozhin rages. “And now listen to me, fuckers. They were someone’s sons or fathers. You, fuckers, who don’t give us ammo, will burn in hell. We have a lack of shells … Shoigu, Gerasimov, where the fuck are our shells? Look at them, bitches.”

He adds: “Those guys came here as volunteers. They fight for you to continue enjoying your lavish lifestyles in your cabinets decorated with redwood.”

Prigozhin’s video and the Wagner statement present an extraordinary breakdown in relations between the Kremlin and its most famous paramilitary unit, whose forces are key to Russia’s offensive on Bakhmut, a strategic town that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent months.

The statement published on Friday by Wagner claims Russian defense ministry units were supposed to cover the paramilitary group’s flanks but are struggling to do so. The commanders added that there are insufficient resources to continue storming Ukrainian positions, and as a result dozens of mercenaries are being killed every day.

The U.S. earlier this week estimated that 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since December and a further 80,000 injured.

Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II every year on May 9, and President Vladimir Putin has used the holiday to boost his image. Wagner’s commanders said they would continue attacking Bakhmut until May 10, as “they want to celebrate May 9, the World War II Victory Day — a sacred holiday for Russia — with the shine of Russian weapon.”

But on May 10, Wagner’s forces will retreat rearward and pass their front-line positions to Russia’s official army, Prigozhin said.

“I have to withdraw what’s left of Wagner to lick our wounds. Because without enough weapons and ammo they are doomed to die without a cause,” Prigozhin said in a statement, adding that he had decided to make the announcement public as the Kremlin had ignored his previous letters and demands.

A Ukrainian medic runs through a trench along the front line outside of Bakhmut | John Moore/Getty Images

Neither Shoigu nor Gerasimov has publicly responded to Prigozhin’s video or the Wagner statement, nor have they previously commented on the potential tensions with the paramilitary group’s founder.

Earlier this week at a meeting, Shoigu claimed Russian armed forces have been getting increasing ammunition stocks, according to Russian state-run news agency TASS.

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