Russian private army head says over 20K of his troops died in Bakhmut battle

Ukrainian soldiers help their wounded fellow at a medical stabilisation point near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian soldiers help their wounded fellow at a medical stabilisation point near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

KYIV, Ukraine -- The head of the Russian private army Wagner has again broken with the Kremlin line on Ukraine, saying its goal of demilitarizing the country has backfired, acknowledging Russian troops have killed civilians and agreeing with Western estimates that he's lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bakhmut.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said about half of those who died in the eastern Ukrainian city were Russian convicts recruited for the 15-month-old war. His figures stood in stark contrast to Moscow's widely disputed claims that just over 6,000 of its troops were killed throughout the war as of January. By comparison, official Soviet troop losses in the 1979-89 Afghanistan war were 15,000.

Ukraine hasn't said how many of its soldiers have died since Russia's full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

White House officials said Wednesday that Prigozhin's comments were in line with their own estimates that Russian losses have accelerated. The White House estimated this month that Russian forces had suffered 100,000 casualties, including 20,000 killed in fighting, since December. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said then that about half of those killed were Wagner forces.

Analysts believe many of those killed in the nine-month fight for Bakhmut were Russian convicts with little military training.

Prigozhin -- himself a former convict -- has frequently criticized Russian military officials for not supplying his troops with enough ammunition. He also has questioned their tactics, commitment and leadership capabilities, and complained they haven't sufficiently credited his forces for battlefield successes.

He's highlighted his forces' sacrifices, and on Saturday touted what he claimed was the capture of the city of Bakhmut.

In an interview published late Tuesday with Konstantin Dolgov, a pro-Kremlin political strategist, Prigozhin went even further in his criticism -- questioning some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's rationale for the war. Prigozhin said Russia's goal of "demilitarizing" Ukraine has backfired because Kyiv's military has become stronger with Western weapons and training.

In invading Ukraine, Putin also cited the need to increase Russia's security and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Since the war began, Ukraine has applied to join NATO, and cross-border attacks into Russia itself have increased.

In Washington, Kirby speculated Wednesday on Prigozhin's motives.

"And it's possible that this could be a sort of morbid way of him ... claiming credit for whatever they've been able to achieve in Bakhmut, but also trying to publicly embarrass the Ministry of Defense further that the cost was borne in blood and treasure by Wagner, and not by the Russian military."

In the interview, Prigozhin also challenged Moscow's vehement denials that Russian forces had killed civilians.

In what it says is likely a low estimate, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says that from February 2022 until early April 2023, it recorded 22,734 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 8,490 killed and 14,244 injured.

Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman with longtime links to Putin, is known for his bluster -- often spiced with obscenities -- and has previously made unverifiable claims from which he later backtracked.

Earlier this month, his media team published a video of him shouting, swearing and pointing at about 30 uniformed bodies on the ground, saying they were Wagner fighters who died in a single day. He claimed the Russian Defense Ministry had starved his men of ammunition, and he threatened to give up the fight for Bakhmut.

Prigozhin has frequently warned of a counteroffensive that Ukrainian officials have said they're planning, and in Tuesday's interview, he said that, given continued Western support, Kyiv's forces might succeed in pushing Russian troops out of all territory they occupy in 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."

Prigozhin's admission of heavy losses appears to show the impact of Ukraine's strategy. Ukrainian officials have said their goal in Bakhmut was to exhaust and deplete Russian forces, distract them from protecting territory they occupy elsewhere, and buy time for more Western weapons and ammunition supplies to arrive, and for training to be completed.

Russia's largest state-run and pro-Kremlin media did not report Prigozhin's interview, posted in a Telegram channel with only 50,000 followers, making it unlikely to be widely seen in Russia. Nor did Russian military bloggers, whose popular Telegram pages are important sources of information about the war to many Russians, mention it.

On the battlefield, the Ukrainian General Staff said Wednesday that "heavy fighting" was continuing inside Bakhmut, days after Russia claimed it had completely captured the devastated city. Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four Russia illegally annexed last fall and only partially controls.

The head of Ukraine's ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Kyiv's forces "are continuing their defensive operation" in Bakhmut, with unspecified "successes" on its outskirts. He didn't elaborate.

A Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the Ukrainians planned to trap the Russians.

"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."

Elsewhere, more attacks continued in a border region that Russian officials had claimed had calmed down after one of the most serious incursions since the war began. Russian forces shot down "a large number" of drones in Russia's southern Belgorod region, a local official said Wednesday, a day after Moscow announced that its forces crushed a cross-border raid from Ukraine.

The drones were intercepted overnight, Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram, and another was shot down Wednesday just outside the regional capital, also called Belgorod. He said no one had been hurt, but property had been damaged.

Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu vowed to respond "promptly and extremely harshly" to such attacks.

Details of the incident in the rural region, about 80 kilometers (45 miles) north of the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and far from the war's front lines, are unclear.

Moscow blamed the incursion on Ukrainian military saboteurs. Kyiv described it as an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. It was impossible to reconcile the two versions, to say with certainty who was behind the attack or to ascertain its aims.

The region is a Russian military hub holding fuel and ammunition depots. The Belgorod region, like the neighboring Bryansk region and other border areas, has seen sporadic spillover from the war.

Kozlowska reported from London. Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, Aamer Madhani in Washington, and Andrew Katell in New York contributed.

photo Military medics give first aid to wounded Ukrainian soldiers at a medical stabilisation point near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
photo This handout photo released by Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov's telegram channel on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, shows damaged houses in Russia's western Belgorod region on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. Russian troops and security forces fought for a second day Tuesday against an alleged cross-border raid that Moscow blamed on Ukrainian military saboteurs but which Kyiv portrayed as an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region on the Ukraine border, said forces continued to sweep the rural area around the town of Graivoron, where the alleged attack on Monday took place. (Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov telegram channel via AP)
photo In this handout photo released by Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov's telegram channel on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, a damaged armored military vehicle is seen after fighting in Russia's western Belgorod region on Tuesday. Russian troops and security forces fought for a second day Tuesday against an alleged cross-border raid that Moscow blamed on Ukrainian military saboteurs but which Kyiv portrayed as an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region on the Ukraine border, said forces continued to sweep the rural area around the town of Graivoron, where the alleged attack on Monday took place. (Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov telegram channel via AP)
photo Russian rockets launch against Ukraine from Russia's Belgorod region are seen at dawn in Kharkiv, Ukraine, early Sunday, May 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Vadim Belikov)
photo FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, arrives during a funeral ceremony at the Troyekurovskoye cemetery in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, April 8, 2023. Prigozhin is threatening to pull his troops out of the protracted battle for the eastern Ukraine city of Bakhmut next week. He accused Russias military command Friday, May 5 of starving his forces of ammunition and rendering them unable to fight. (AP Photo, file)
photo In this handout image taken from a video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, May 12, 2023, head of Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin makes a video statement from an unknown location. In a video statement Friday, Prigozhin mocked the Russian Defense Ministry's report claiming that its forces regrouped to take more favorable positions, saying they effectively fled and "our flanks are crumbling." (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)