Meanwhile, woman and 2 children reported killed by Russian bomb in Kherson region village.
The founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force has said his troops now tightening their grip on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut are being deprived of ammunition and that, if they are forced to retreat, the entire front will collapse.
Yevgeny Prigozhin had said on Friday that his units had “practically surrounded Bakhmut,” where fighting has intensified in the past week after months of attritional warfare, with Russian forces attacking from three sides.
Wagner often appears to operate autonomously from the regular army, or even in competition with it, and in a video published over the weekend, Prigozhin complained that the ammunition that Moscow had promised it had not been delivered.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Prigozhin said. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”
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Reuters could not independently verify when and where the video was recorded. It was published not on Prigozhin’s usual press service Telegram channel, but on one that has associated itself with Wagner and disseminated news about Prigozhin.
On his usual channel, Prigozhin also mentioned the lack of ammunition, saying on Sunday: “For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: Is it just ordinary bureaucracy, or a betrayal?”
Timing of Prigozhin video unclear
Prigozhin regularly criticizes the military hierarchy and last month accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and others of “treason” for withholding munitions. Shoigu has been visiting forces in Ukraine to award medals and meet commanders and on Monday was in the eastern city of Mariupol, captured by Russian forces last year after a months-long siege.
In the nearly four-minute video published on the Wagner Orchestra Telegram channel on Saturday, Prigozhin said his troops were worried that Moscow wanted to set them up as potential scapegoats if Russia lost the war.
“If we retreat, then we will go down in history forever as people who have taken the main step towards losing the war,” he said.
“This is exactly the problem with ‘ammunition hunger’.”
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Prigozhin delivered his monologue in what appeared to be a bunker, with a dim light casting his heavy shadow on the wall behind him.
He said his troops would wonder whether they were being “set up” for defeat by the top brass or even someone “higher.”
Russian nationalist ex-rebel commander Igor Girkin, a prominent opponent of Prigozhin’s, said without citing evidence that the doom-laden video published on the weekend had been recorded at the height of that row, about two weeks ago.
Prigozhin has used the war to become a public figure in Russia, and strong signs have emerged in the past month that the Kremlin wants to clip his wings after he began feuding with the defence establishment.
The Defence Ministry said last month it was “absolutely untrue” that Wagner was being starved of ammunition.
Bakhmut has ‘symbolic value’: U.S. Defence Secretary
The battle for Bakhmut has raged for seven months. A Russian victory in the city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 but has now been blasted to ruins, would give Moscow the first major prize in a costly winter offensive.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that if Ukrainian forces decided to reposition west of Bakhmut, he would not view that as a strategic setback.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters while visiting Jordan.
Austin also noted the “fissures” between Wagner and the Russian military.
“I would say the Wagner forces have been a bit more effective than the Russian forces … Having said that, we have not seen exemplary performance from Russian forces.”
Russians close to capturing Bakhmut in ferocious battle
The ferocious battle continues in Bakhmut with Ukrainians trying to hold off Russian forces. There are signs the Russians may soon take control of the city, but their forces are pressed, too, with the head of the Wagner mercenary group saying they need more ammunition.
Ukraine’s military said early on Monday its forces had repelled 95 Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area over the previous day.
“The situation in Bakhmut can be described as critical,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a video commentary.
To the north of Bakhmut, Russian troops advanced toward the town of Bilohorivka, just inside the Luhansk region, and shelled several settlements in the direction of Kupiansk and Lyman, the Ukrainian military said.
To the south, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces made preparations for an offensive in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, shelling dozens of towns and villages including the city of Kherson, causing civilian casualties.
A woman and two children were killed by Russian mortar bombs in a village in Kherson region, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office said.
The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine said one person was wounded by falling debris on Monday after Russian forces shot down three missiles near the town of Novy Oskol.
Russian unit disobey orders: unconfirmed reports
Belgorod borders Ukraine’s Kharkiv region and has repeatedly come under fire since the beginning of Russia’s invasion. Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks inside Russia.
Near Vuhledar, southwest of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, Ukraine said senior officers of Russia’s 155th Brigade, which Kyiv says suffered heavy recent losses, were refusing to obey orders to attack.
“The leaders of the brigade and senior officers are refusing to proceed with a new senseless attack as demanded by their unskilled commanders — to storm well-defended Ukrainian positions with little protection or preparation,” Ukraine’s military said in a statement.
Military analyst Zhdanov said two “Cossack” Russian units known as Steppe and Tiger had expressed frustration with their commanders and refused to take part in any new offensive on the hilltop town.
Reuters could not immediately verify the reports.
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