MOSCOW: The boss of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group on Tuesday accused a Russian military unit of fleeing positions near Bakhmut in Ukraine and said the state was incapable of defending its country.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose influence has risen hugely in Moscow’s Ukraine offensive, has in recent days released a series of scathing videos attacking Russia’s military leadership.
“Today one of the units of the defense ministry fled from one of our flanks... exposing the front,” Prigozhin said in a video.
He has threatened to pull his fighters out of Bakhmut on May 10 if he did not receive badly needed ammunition.
The mercenary group has spearheaded Moscow’s fight for the eastern Ukrainian city.
Prigozhin said soldiers were fleeing because of the “stupidity” of Russian army commanders, who he said were giving “criminal orders.”
“Soldiers should not die because of the absolute stupidity of their leadership,” Prigozhin said.
He released the video on Russia’s Victory Day, when Moscow celebrates the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II.
Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement later in the day that “assault troops” — normally a reference to Wagner units — were “continuing to fight in the western part” of Bakhmut.
The ministry said Russian paratroopers “provided assistance,” without mentioning Prigozhin’s accusation of soldiers abandoning their posts.
In his unprecedented attack on the Russian army, Prigozhin said Tuesday that Moscow’s top generals were trying to “deceive” President Vladimir Putin over the Kremlin’s Ukraine campaign.
“If all the tasks are being carried out in such a way as to deceive the commander-in-chief (Putin), then either he will rip your arse or the Russian people will — who will be angry that the war is lost,” Prigozhin said.
As Ukraine prepares for a spring offensive, the outspoken 61-year-old questioned the Kremlin’s ability to defend the country.
“Why is the state not able to defend its country?” Prigozhin said in the video, adding that Ukraine was hitting Russian border regions “successfully.”
Prigozhin published the video as Moscow celebrated its Victory Day with a grand military parade on Red Square that was televised across the country.
He said Ukraine was preparing for an offensive “that will be on the ground, not on TV.”
“So far, in our country everyone thinks that everything needs to be done on TV.”
Russia has provided near round-the-clock coverage of its offensive, showing the army in an exclusively positive light.
Meanwhile The Times newspaper reported Tuesday that Britain is set to formally blacklist the group as a terrorist organization to increase pressure on Russia.
Wagner mercenaries have spearheaded Russia’s months-long assault on Bakhmut in the industrial Donbas region.
After two months of building a legal case, proscription or a formal blacklisting of the group was “imminent” and likely to be enacted within weeks, the newspaper reported citing a government source.
This would make it a criminal offense to belong to Wagner, attend its meetings, encourage support for it or carry its logo in public, The Times said. It would also impose financial sanctions on the group and there would be implications for Wagner’s ability to raise money if any funds went through British financial institutions, the newspaper added.
Britain’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Bakhmut has been under Russian attack for more than nine months, with Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries leading repeated attempts to advance on what was once a city of 70,000.
The group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in a social media message on Monday that his troops were beginning to receive ammunition needed to press their advance. Troops had advanced a maximum of 130 meters (400 feet) amid fierce fighting, Prigozhin said.