Prigozhin says his forces have begun withdrawing from Bakhmut.

Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.
Smoke rising near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, last week.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Days after declaring victory in Bakhmut, the Wagner private military company has started to withdraw its fighters from the ruined city in eastern Ukraine and will be replaced by regular Russian troops, the group’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, said in a video released on Thursday.

The withdrawal, if confirmed, could open a new phase of the monthslong struggle for the city, testing whether the Russian Army can hold the hard-won ground against Ukrainian forces that have advanced on the city’s outskirts and are preparing to launch a broader counteroffensive.

Mr. Prigozhin announced the capture of Bakhmut on Saturday, a claim echoed by the Russian Defense Ministry, after one of the longest and deadliest battles of the war in Ukraine. He has said that his fighters, who had spearheaded the Russian assault on the city, now need to recover and to repair weapons and other equipment.

Ukraine has conceded that Russian forces control nearly the entire city and has said that its forces are shifting their focus to make it difficult for Russia to hold Bakhmut or move deeper into eastern Ukraine. On Thursday, a deputy Ukrainian defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said that Ukrainian troops controlled an area just southwest of Bakhmut and were trying to make further gains on the outskirts.

“In the Bakhmut direction, the enemy is trying to stop our advance on the flanks with artillery fire,” Ms. Maliar said. “Now the enemy is pulling up additional units to the flanks for reinforcement.”

Regular Russian Army units had replaced Wagner fighters in Bakhmut’s suburbs, Ms. Maliar added, while Wagner forces remained inside the city.

Mr. Prigozhin signaled that Wagner’s pullout would take several days, saying in a video statement published on the messaging app Telegram that all its troops would leave Bakhmut and head to training camps by Wednesday.

In an earlier statement this week, Mr. Prigozhin had said that, starting June 1, “not a single Wagner fighter will be at the forefront until we undergo re-formation, re-equipment and additional training.”

“We will get rest and get ready,” he said in the latest video. “And then we will receive a new task.”

In the video on Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin is shown visiting what he claims are Wagner positions in Bakhmut and telling his soldiers to hand over their positions to Russian troops.

“Leave them soap, but take away your toothbrushes,” he says. No Russian Army troops are seen in the roughly three-minute clip.

Mr. Prigozhin, a tycoon closely aligned with President Vladimir V. Putin, has been among the most vocal critics of Russian military leadership, accusing them of incompetence and corruption, although he has not criticized Mr. Putin.

He has apparently been emboldened by his mercenaries’ brutal effectiveness in Bakhmut, where ill-trained former prisoners mounted near-suicidal ground assaults against Ukrainian defenses. According to Mr. Prigozhin, 20,000 Wagner troops, half of whom were former convicts, died in Bakhmut, although a State Department spokesman said that was a significant undercount of Russia’s casualties in the battle. Ukraine, too, is believed to have suffered huge losses in the fighting.

New York Times – May 25, 2023

AB- What the Ukrainians are saying is that the Wagnerites are staying in the town and the regular Russian Army is reinforcing them around the town.