The statements sparked widespread speculation that Wagner fighters may soon leave Bakhmut altogether, potentially creating an opening for Ukrainian forces to advance. The complete departure of Wagner forces would likely change the trajectory of the war in the eastern part of the country as Russia and Ukraine have been locked in an intense battle inside the city for months and have lost thousands of soldiers.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials announced they had captured several of Wagner’s positions on the outskirts of the city. But U.S. officials said they have seen no evidence to suggest that Wagner is preparing for such a total retreat.
Prigozhin has long spoken out against the Russian defense ministry, claiming his soldiers were leading the fight on the ground and that Moscow is not doing enough to help in Bakhmut. U.S. officials said Prigozhin’s recent remarks about Bakhmut are not credible and were likely meant to elicit a reaction from inside Moscow’s defense apparatus — to force Moscow to send additional weapons.
Despite Prigozhion’s statements, Wagner continues to hold significant stockpiles of ammunition and maintains control of at least 85 percent of Bakhmut, the U.S. officials said. One of the officials said although Wagner forces appear intact in Bakhmut it is still possible that Chechen forces move into the city to help.
Both officials who spoke to POLITICO have been involved in recent administration conversations about Russia and Wagner’s activities in Ukraine and were granted anonymity to speak freely about current U.S. intelligence about the situation in Bakhmut.
“We aren’t going to comment on Mr. Prigozhin’s theatrics or on the political posturing that’s going on with him and Russia’s military leaders,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said. “Mr. Prigozhin has treated his [W]agner soldiers like cannon-fodder, sacrificing their lives for small advances with no apparent strategic gain to try to achieve his political ends.”
Meanwhile, Kyiv and Moscow continue to exchange blows in Bakhmut. The fighting has for weeks stood at a standstill with neither side making any significant advances. On Wednesday, however, Ukrainian officials said forces had pushed back a Russian infantry brigade on the southwestern outskirts of the city.
A Ukrainian win in Bakhmut would hold a certain symbolic significance but western officials have advised Kyiv in recent months not to spend significant amounts of resources on the battle and to instead direct its weapons and fighters to the upcoming spring and summer offensives.
For now, though, Ukraine continues to hold its positions in the city, the officials said.