Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group, escalated his long-running feud with Russia’s Ministry of Defense over the last week. In a March 4 video, Prigozhin hurled expletives at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff and Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, while standing in front of the bodies of dead Wagner fighters. Prigozhin claims that Russia’s military, having already stopped the group from recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, is intentionally withholding ammunition from Wagner. He charges that Shoigu and Gerasimov resent the group’s success in its bloody assault on Bakhmut, the sole area where Russia has made significant advances in recent months.
The next day, Prigozhin declared that he had no choice but to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut by May 10, even though Russia had almost entirely taken the city. He even alleged that Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, who’d recently been fired from his position as deputy defense minister for logistics, was sacked for supplying additional ammunition to Wagner under the table. Mizintsev has apparently since joined Wagner.
On March 7, however, Prigozhin appeared to back down. The Wagner chief said the Defense Ministry had promised to provide sufficient ammunition. He also said General Sergei Surovikin, with whom Prigozhin seems to be on good terms, would liaise between the ministry and Wagner. Surovikin previously served as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine but was demoted to deputy commander in January, when Gerasimov took over. Prigozhin later said he’d been warned that he and his men would be branded as traitors should Wagner abandon its positions.
Nevertheless, the drama continues. On May 9, Prigozhin accused Gerasimov of personally denying Wagner its promised ammunition, then threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut after “a few days” if the situation isn’t corrected. He also levied cryptic criticism at an unnamed “happy grandfather” who seems unaware of the problems plaguing Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. That remark sparked a storm of media speculation that Prigozhin was referring to Putin, which the Wagner chief later denied.
The veracity of Prigozhin’s allegations remains unclear. On the one hand, there is some evidence that Gerasimov has previously cut Wagner’s shell supply. On the other hand, Ukrainian sources insist Wagner enjoys plenty of ammunition and has intensified its shelling in Bakhmut in recent days. Prigozhin himself says the group expends 6,000 shells per day, a considerable sum. Any “shell hunger” Wagner’s currently experiencing may stem from Russia’s broader shortage of artillery shells. That shortfall seems to have forced the Russian military to conserve across the board, particularly as it focuses on preparing to counter Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive.
Ukraine Counterattacks Around Bakhmut
Ukrainian forces have reportedly conducted successful tactical counterattacks southwest and northwest of Bakhmut, where Russian regulars had reportedly been defending Wagner’s flanks. If accurate, these gains, while small in scale, could position Ukraine to better defend what’s left of Bakhmut as well as nearby cities.
In his May 9 tirade against the Defense Ministry, Prigozhin alleged that Russia’s 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade, part of a new army corps formed last year, “pissed away three square km this morning,” fleeing positions that Wagner had previously taken at the cost of “around 500 men.” Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade, one of the main Ukrainian units fighting in the Bakhmut area, later corroborated Prigozhin’s claim. The brigade, along with the commander of its 2nd Assault Battalion, which appears to have led the push, said Ukraine conducted a two-day counterattack southwest of Bakhmut. They released footage showing Ukrainian forces taking Russian positions around a canal near the town of Klishchiivka, southwest of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians say they destroyed two companies and a reconnaissance unit from the 72nd Brigade and inflicted heavy losses on a Wagner assault detachment.
According to Ukrainian officers, Kyiv’s forces conducted an opportunistic assault on a weak link in Russia’s lines, striking as Russian troops were rotating into position. A prominent Russian military blogger appeared to corroborate that account, saying poor communication prevented the 72nd Brigade from backfilling Wagner forces that redeployed to another part of the front. Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, Kyiv’s top commander in eastern Ukraine, claimed that the Russians retreated up to 2 kilometers in certain areas. He credited Ukraine’s success to the heavy losses it had previously inflicted on Wagner forces, which had “to be replaced in certain directions by less well-prepared” regular Russian units. Prigozhin said Wagner had to move in to “block” the advancing Ukrainian forces before they gained further ground.
On Thursday, Wagner-linked Russian war correspondents claimed Ukraine achieved further tactical successes on Bakhmut’s flanks, even as the group allegedly continued to gain ground in the city itself. Elements of the 9th Motor Rifle Regiment, part of Russia’s 18th Motor Rifle Division, reportedly retreated 600 meters from positions near the road connecting Bakhmut to nearby Chasiv Yar. In addition, elements of Russia’s 2nd Army Corps, based in occupied Luhansk Oblast, reportedly lost additional ground northwest of Klishchiivka, near Ukraine’s main supply route into Bakhmut. These units had apparently recently redeployed from other areas to defend Wagner’s flanks. According to the correspondents, Wagner troops arrived in time to retake at least some of the lost positions.
These reports should be taken with a grain of salt given that Wagner has a vested interest in discrediting Russia’s Defense Ministry. But if true, the recent counterattacks could relieve Russian pressure on the roads into Bakhmut, allowing Ukraine to better supply its troops there and reduce their risk of encirclement. However, that may still not be enough to prevent Russia from taking what’s left of the city. As the 2nd Assault Battalion’s commander noted, Ukrainian gains could also help guard against a Russian assault on other nearby cities if and when Bakhmut finally falls.