Russian Mercenary Leader Threatens to Pull Forces From Bakhmut Next Week

Mr. Prigozhin has complained about ammunition shortages and threatened to pull out of the city before, but he has not previously given a date. The Wagner group has been a driving force behind Russia’s monthslong battle to take Bakhmut, which has cost thousands of lives on both sides and reduced much of the city to rubble.

His latest comments come as Ukrainian soldiers continue to defend a western pocket of Bakhmut, defying signs just weeks ago that the city was close to falling to Moscow, and as Kyiv’s forces prepare to launch a counteroffensive.

A Wagner withdrawal from Bakhmut would still leave Russia with a significant fighting force in and around the city. While Wagner fighters spearheaded the battle for Bakhmut through last fall and winter — sending waves of ex-prisoners into near-suicidal assaults against Ukrainian defenses — thousands of regular Russian forces, including paratroopers and special operations forces, have played an increasingly active role in recent months.

Mr. Prigozhin named next Wednesday, the day after Russia’s Victory Day holiday, as when his forces would likely leave Bakhmut to withdraw and “lick their wounds.” The May 9 holiday, marked by a colossal parade and a show of military might on Red Square, celebrates the Soviet Union’s vanquishing of Nazi Germany and has taken on particular resonance in Russia amid its war in Ukraine.

“I am pulling out Wagner formations from Bakhmut because without weapons they are doomed to die meaninglessly,” he said in the video, adding that they would hand off to Russian defense forces.

The Wagner chief has long criticized Russian military leadership openly, with some analysts attributing the tensions to rivalries for President Vladimir V. Putin’s favor. Mr. Prigozhin has never pointed a finger directly at Mr. Putin over Russia’s setbacks in the war.

In February, Mr. Prigozhin accused Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov of treason, claiming they were starving Wagner of ammunition. But the dispute soon quieted, with the mercenary leader saying his soldiers now had the ammunition they needed. In the closed-off world of the Russian military, there was no way to know whether Wagner got the ammunition or whether the Kremlin had told him to keep his mouth shut.

In an interview with a Russian military blogger last week, Mr. Prigozhin again claimed that his troops were low on ammunition and said that if he didn’t get it he would make a decision about “continuing to station units in Bakhmut.”

Dmitri S. Peskov, the government spokesman, said that the Kremlin had seen Mr. Prigozhin’s Friday statements, but that he would not comment on them.

Mr. Prigozhin’s latest remarks added to speculation over Russia’s weapons stockpiles as its war in Ukraine drags into its 15th month. This week, Mr. Shoigu called for swifter weapons production, the latest in a series of statements by senior officials that suggest the Russian arms industry is struggling to keep pace with the demands of the war.

But a spokesman for Ukraine’s military emphasized that Mr. Prigozhin’s comments should be treated with skepticism, saying the mercenary leader was looking to shift blame for his fighters’ inability to capture Bakhmut despite months of bitter fighting.

“He’s faking a shelling famine,” the spokesman, Serhii Cherevaty, told Ukrainian media.

The problem for Wagner was not a lack of ammunition, Mr. Cherevaty said, but a shortage of people to fight and die.

“The word ‘death’ has become a synonym for them,” he said, referring to Wagner.

Marc Santora contributed reporting.

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