On 5 May, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner PMC, said his forces would abandon the town of Bakhmut (Artemivsk) by 10 May due to a shortage of ammunition. He accused the Russian military command, “jealous near-war bureaucrats”, of creating an artificial ammunition supply crisis. According to Prigozhin, the Russian Defense Ministry has cut off the Wagner PMC from any supply of ammunition since May 1. The enemy forces in the Bakhmut direction exceed the forces of the Wagner PMC by five times. Artificial difficulties have been created for the Wagner PMC to replenish personnel.
“From May 10, 2023 on, we are leaving the settlement of Bakhmut. We have a little over two kilometers of 45 left to take. But if because of your petty envy you do not want to give victory to the Russians to take Bakhmut, that is your problem,” Prigozhin’s press office quoted his statement.
In another statement, he said his unit was suffering tens of thousands of casualties due to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Lack of sufficient ammunition is leading to mass casualties. Prigozhin said that he did not intend to wait for his personnel to die and would withdraw his subordinate forces from Bakhmut by 10 May, handing the city over to regular units of the Russian Defense Ministry. On the previous day, Yevgeniy Prigozhin recorded a video address to the General Staff and the Defense Ministry, in which he showed the daily losses of Wagner PMC personnel in Bakhmut due to the lack of shells. According to him, the death toll could have been five times less.
Consequences of leaving Bakhmut
During the years leading up to the war in Ukraine, and during the war itself, the Wagner PMCs have established themselves as the most combat-ready unit of the Russian armed forces. It consists of the best-trained fighters and officers, who have been tested in numerous armed conflicts, including those in Syria and Africa. PMC “Wagner” is deprived of many problems of the Russian regular army, but depends on it in terms of supply.
If the Wagner PMC leaves Bakhmut, the consequences for Russia will be disastrous. Both sides of the conflict in Ukraine have turned the battle for Bakhmut into a symbolically important battle for themselves. The Ukrainian side and the Western countries supporting it now desperately need at least some kind of victory as part of the counter-offensive that has already begun (with drone attacks on Russian cities and on the Kremlin). The Kiev authorities’ claims of an imminent counter-offensive play a key role in supporting morale among the electorate not only in Ukraine but also in the West. Biden is demanding a counter-offensive soon, because he has the start of the election race on his hands.
If the Wagner PMC leaves Bakhmut, it will cause demoralization in Russia, which is fraught with general public disillusionment with the military conflict and with the high command, the country’s leadership as a whole. An unprecedented situation has emerged, with public opinion leaders and politicians calling on the military to put aside old arguments and supply the Wagner PMC grouping in Bakhmut with everything it needs. In particular, Gennady Zyuganov, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, said:
“On behalf of the People’s Patriotic Forces of Russia, I appeal to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief and the Minister of Defense to take exhaustive measures to resolve the crisis situation in which the Wagner PMC fighters find themselves. We need an active front and a strong rear for the successful completion of the Artemivsk operation, demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine”.
Moment of truth
The conflict between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense has now come to the fore. The question is whether the Russian Defense Ministry will be able to transcend the personal ambitions of some officials and swiftly resolve the issue of providing the Wagner PMCs. Or will it take the risk of losing a symbolically important point in the war, for which there was a bloody and bitter battle for six months, just to solve the intra-elite problems? The Wagner mishap will test the very structure of modern Russian statehood – whether it is capable of acting promptly and effectively as a state (i.e. a coherent and goal-oriented system) and solve the problem that has arisen. The Russian state system needs to find out the causes of the ammunition famine (objective and subjective), as well as to revise the command of the troops, if it is going to achieve victory in the war.