Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has lost 20,000 fighters — some of whom were Russian convicts recruited from prisons — in the ongoing battle for the highly contested Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the group’s leader said.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin shared the eye-opening figure, a stark contrast from Moscow’s claims that it has lost just over 6,000 troops in the war, in an interview published Tuesday.
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“Throughout the [entire combat] operation, I recruited 50,000 prisoners, of which about 20% died. Exactly the same number died as those who signed up through a contract,” Prigozhin said, according to the Moscow Times.
“PMC Wagner completely liberated Artyomovsk [Bakhmut],” Prigozhin said, repeating his Saturday announcement that Wagner gained complete control of Bakhmut — a claim that Ukraine has denied.
Russia’s goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine has backfired as Kyiv’s forces have been bolstered by weapons and training from its Western allies.
The Kremlin’s forces have also killed civilians during the war — something Moscow has repeatedly denied, according to Prigozhin.
About 35,000 Wagner fighters took part in the battle for Bakhmut, the leader said.
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The Wagner boss said the mercenary group would hand over control of Bakhmut to the Russian Defense Ministry by June 1.
“If PMC Wagner cannot hand the positions because the Russian army is not ready to take them over, then this means that PMC Wagner has risen to a level higher than the Russian army,” Prigozhin added.
“If they [the army] cannot take over [the positions], then the persons concerned must shoot themselves,” he said.
Prigozhin also said Tuesday it was possible that Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive could push Russian forces out of southern and eastern Ukraine, as well as annexed Crimea.
“A pessimistic scenario: The Ukrainians are given missiles, they prepare troops, of course, they will continue their offensive, try to counterattack,” he said. “They will attack Crimea, they will try to blow up the Crimean bridge (to the Russian mainland), cut off (our) supply lines. Therefore, we need to prepare for a hard war.”
Bakhmut is in in the Donetsk region, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed, but it’s only partially in Russia’s control.
Ukrainian military officials have insisted that the battle for Bakhmut isn’t over — even as the Wagner group claims it has gained complete control of the city.
A Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut told the Associated Press on Tuesday that they have a plan to push the Russians out of all occupied territory.
“But now we don’t need to fight in Bakhmut, we need to surround it from flanks and block it,” Yevhen Mezhevikin said. “Then we should ‘sweep’ it. This is more appropriate, and that’s what we are doing now.”
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