US newspaper report, denied by mercenary group’s leader, says locations were offered in exchange for a withdrawal near Bakhmut.
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group offered in late January to reveal Russian military positions to Kyiv in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal around Bakhmut, The Washington Post reports, citing leaked Pentagon documents.
The US newspaper reported late on Sunday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose fighters have spearheaded the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city, made the offer via his secret communications with Ukrainian intelligence, which he has kept throughout the war.
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The documents do not clarify which Russian positions Prigozhin would have given up. Two Ukrainian officials told the Post that Prigozhin had extended the offer more than once.
The documents do not reveal Prigozhin’s intention in talking to his enemies, but it is not unusual for warring countries to maintain some form of communication.
Still, Kyiv reportedly rejected the offer because it does not trust the Wagner Group’s boss.
According to another document, Prigozhin also told Ukraine that the Russian military was struggling with ammunition and advised them to push towards the border of Crimea.
But on Monday, the Wagner founder took to the Telegram messaging app to deny that he had offered Kyiv Russian positions in Bakhmut.
The Kremlin said The Washington Post report sounds like a hoax.
The battle for Bakhmut
During the fight for Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war, Prigozhin has repeatedly blasted Russian military commanders, complaining that Moscow is not sending enough arms to his fighters to take the city.
Last week, the Wagner boss threatened to pull his forces out if more weapons were not sent to the front line but later said he was told they would be regarded as traitors if they left.
Other leaked US documents have revealed that the Russian Ministry of Defence is privately considering how to respond to Prigozhin’s criticism of the military’s performance during the war.
Moscow acknowledged on Friday that its forces had fallen back in Bakhmut, which Prigozhin called a “rout” not, as Russia said, a “regrouping”.
But on Sunday, Prigozhin said on Telegram that his forces were in control of 28 multistorey buildings in western Bakhmut, where Ukrainian troops are based.
Ukrainian forces, he said, held 20 buildings and an area of 1.69sq km (0.65sq miles).
While Ukraine continues preparing for its anticipated counteroffensive, Ukrainian Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi on Monday hailed operations in Bakhmut.
On Telegram, he said: “The advance of our troops along the Bakhmut direction is the first success of offensive actions in the defence of Bakhmut.
“The last few days have shown that we can move forward and destroy the enemy even in such extremely difficult conditions. We are fighting with fewer resources than the enemy. At the same time, we are able to ruin its plans.”
But Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said heavy fighting continued in and around the city and “everything” was difficult there.
“The Russians have not changed their goals. They are sending assault troops to the outskirts of Bakhmut,” she wrote on Telegram.