Prigozhin's Last Bluff? What Will Happen If Wagner Group Really Pulls Out Of Bakhmut
Having claimed conquest over Bakhmut, Wagner Boss Yevgeny Prigozhin says his troops will begin to leave the city Thursday and hand control over to the official Russian army. But there are plenty, especially inside of Russia, who have no interest in seeing Wagner go. A showdown with the Kremlin looms.
Tucked into his rambling, megalomaniacal and (according to Kyiv) premature victory speech in Bakhmut over the weekend, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin offered one very precise piece of information:
The mercenary army that he leads would begin to pull out of the eastern Ukrainian city on May 25. On Monday, he repeated the vow, saying Wagner's withdrawal would be complete by June 1.
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What happens now as we count down the days and hours to this would-be deadline will tell us more about the situation on the ground in Bakhmut than any declarations. But even more importantly, it may be decisive in the longstanding feud between Prigozhin and the upper echelons of the official Russian military hierarchy — and as such, crucial to the fate of the entire war.
"The operation to take Bakhmut lasted 224 days, the Bakhmut meat grinder," is how Prigozhin began his victory speech on Saturday. “To give the battered Russian army a chance to come to its senses."
He said that only Wagner fighters, who had to fight the Russian bureaucracy in parallel, took part in the battles for Bakhmut on the Russian side.
As he’d done before, he called out by name Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian army commander Valery Gerasimov:
“who turned the war into their entertainment, who decided that their whims in the war would be fulfilled. But because of their whims, five times more guys died in the war than they should have. And some day in history, they will answer for their atrocities."
Rest and retraining
Of course, before considering history, observers on all side are trying to verify what is the current status of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied that Bakhmut has fallen. Other reports say Ukrainian forces have given up the center of the town. Most acknowledge that not much of anything remains in the city, even if it has taken on outsized symbolic importance.
"On the 25th, we will be withdrawing our units for rest and retraining," Prigozhin declared. "We will create the necessary defense lines and hand them to the military."
So will Wagner really leave so soon after the would-be victory?
Russian independent journalist Michael Nacke believes that Prigozhin wants to leave Bakhmut as soon as possible because he knows a Ukrainian offensive is ahead, which the official Russian army cannot repel, and which his battle-weary mercenaries are too tired to hold back.
PMC Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin by the destroyed Knauf Gips Donbass plant on May 1, 2023
"Prigozhin is still trying to escape the trap in which he has driven himself. He wants to somehow cling to this success and continue to try to bring down Gerasimov and Shoigu, thereby giving himself a life,” says Nacke. “The Wagner group has cut off from recruiting prisoners has faced huge losses, and is suffering a shortage of supplies. It now makes Bakhmut into a potential trap. Prigozhin wants to avoid this."
The Russian army cannot attack — it has no men or shells.
Even if Prigozhin is in open conflict with Russia's top military command and has lost direct contact with Putin, he still has cards to play. He knows too many Kremlin secrets, and has his loyal fighters, bought media and telegram channels, not to mention strong popular support among Russian hawks.
Yet that may also spell his doom. Shoigu, for one, may indeed be doing everything possible so that neither Prigozhin nor his militants return to Russia, and left to be wiped out by the Ukrainian army.
Kyiv, meanwhile, is busy poking Prigozhin, with Ukrainian army spokesperson Serhii Cherevatyi saying Saturday that they'd "wiped out his" group. "He is running away with his tail between his legs because he has lost his best personnel," Cherevatyi told Ukrayinska Pravda. "In fact, his Wagner group is essentially destroyed.”
Ultimately, any important military decision, especially something as important as the withdrawal of a significant number of troops from the combat zone, requires the personal approval of Vladimir Putin. And lately, the Russian president has been particularly loyal to his staff generals. Where does that leave Prigozhin? We may find out by Thursday.
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