Mercenary force boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said his Wagner private army has opened recruitment centres in 42 Russian cities as he seeks to replenish the army’s ranks after heavy losses in fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
In an upbeat audio message on Friday, Prigozhin said new fighters were coming forward but gave no indication of the numbers involved. He also said ammunition supplies from the Russian army had improved but remained a concern.“In spite of the colossal resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces, we will go forward,” he said. “Despite the sticks in the wheels that are thrown at us at every step, we will overcome this together.”
Wagner mercenaries have been at the forefront of some of the fiercest fighting in Russia’s attempt to take control of Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian army is still holding out after more than seven months of warfare – a bloody campaign Prigozhin calls “the meat grinder”.
In a separate post on social media on Friday, Prigozhin said Ukraine was preparing a counteroffensive near Bakhmut, adding: “Of course we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening.”Ukraine has decided to fight on in the ruined Bakhmut because the battle has engaged some of Russia’s best units and worn them down ahead of Moscow’s planned spring counteroffensive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak said on Friday.
“Russia has changed tactics,” Podolyak said in an interview published by Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.
“It has converged on Bakhmut with a large part of its trained military personnel, the remnants of its professional army, as well as the private companies,” he said.“We, therefore, have two objectives: To reduce their capable personnel as much as possible and to fix them in a few key wearisome battles, to disrupt their offensive and concentrate our resources elsewhere for the spring counteroffensive. So, today Bakhmut is completely effective, even exceeding its key tasks.”
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Friday that, as Russia pressed its offensive, “our soldiers are doing everything possible to prevent the enemy implementing their plans”.Prigozhin has acknowledged taking severe losses in Bakhmut and at one point posted a gruesome photo of lines of Wagner corpses. He has also waged a public feud with Russian military chiefs over his army’s ammunition shortages.
In January, the United States assessed that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon if they survived six months on the front lines. In February, however, he said he was no longer being allowed to hire convicts straight out of prison.
Ukrainian officials have claimed that nearly 30,000 Wagner fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded in Ukraine, a figure that could not be independently verified.
In another audio message on Friday, Prigozhin said he had thanked the Russian government for a “heroic” increase in ammunition production. He said his men had been “blown away” by the fact they had started to receive ammunition deliveries labelled as produced in 2023. He said ammunition was now being produced “in huge quantities, which cover all the necessary needs”.
Prigozhin then appeared to contradict himself, saying: “I am worried about ammunition and shell shortages not only for the Wagner private military company but for all units of the Russian army.”