Escalating Prigozhin claims and threats
Mission accomplished, says Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian businessman who leads the Wagner Group, the private army fighting for Russia in Ukraine. On Monday, Prigozhin announced his forces had taken the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut and planned to pass control of it to Russian regular army troops by June 1. He also continues to signal that his forces may be leaving Ukraine altogether to focus on battlefields in Africa that offer his mercenary company greater profits and glory than can be found in Ukraine.
Now for a reality check. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says Bakhmut is NOT in Russian hands. Even if Russian forces do take Bakhmut (prewar population 73,000), they’ll enjoy little more than a symbolic victory. It’s taken months for Russia to get this far, and after heavy losses along the way, its forces lack the manpower and weapons to advance any further for the time being.
We must also remember that Prigozhin has a history of grand declarations that fall somewhere between extortionary threats against Russia’s defense ministry and outright lies. One thing is clear: The often-startling and publicly aired dysfunction within the command structure of Russian forces in Ukraine continues to gather speed as Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive looms.
Meanwhile, in other Ukraine-related disputes over who did what, Moscow said a group of Ukrainian saboteurs had crossed into Russia on Monday and continues to launch attacks on the Belgorod region. A group called the Free Russian Legion, made up of Russians who want to bring down Putin, claimed to be behind the attack. Kyiv, for its part, said it has nothing to do with the recent attacks and pointed to this episode as proof of growing discord within Russia.