mission accomplished Having claimed over the weekend the capture of the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, the mercenary group Wagner yesterday began to transfer its positions to the troops of the Russian Ministry of Defense, with which its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been maintaining a tense, fierce rivalry for months.

“We are starting to withdraw the Bakhmut units. From now until the first of June, most of them will be resettled in the rear bases. We are handing over our positions to the military,” said this oligarch, who maintains close ties to the Kremlin, in a video released by his Telegram press service.

From Kyiv, Hanna Maliar, Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, confirmed for her part that Wagner’s paramilitaries had left their positions “on the outskirts of Bakhmut” to transfer them to regular Russian troops. “Wagner’s units remain in (inside) the city of Bakhmut. Our soldiers control the neighborhood of Litak, in the south-western suburbs”, he noted.

Prigozhin claimed on Saturday, May 21, that his men had fulfilled the mission of completely taking this bastion of eastern Ukraine for which Russia has been fighting for eight months. Then, he announced that they were going to withdraw to hand over control of the city to the Russian army. From Moscow’s point of view it is an important enclave, because it can allow its troops to continue advancing westwards, attack the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in an attempt to gain full control of Donetsk province, which with that of Luhansk form the Donbass.

On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the statement of the controversial businessman and the head of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, congratulated them both.

But Ukraine denies that the population, which before the conflict had 70,000 inhabitants, has fallen into Russian hands. Kyiv claims that during the last few days it has recovered 20 square kilometers to the north and south of the city

The end of Wagner’s operations in Bakhmut, which Moscow calls Artyomovsk, the city’s name until 2016, also comes days after dozens of saboteurs raided Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine

The attack, claimed by groups of Russian volunteers who declare themselves opposed to the Kremlin and fight side by side with Ukrainian forces, exposed Russia’s defenses of its own borders. One of these, the Russian Freedom Legion, said on Wednesday that it had suffered only two casualties and ten wounded. It took the Russian army more than 24 hours to, using aviation and artillery, expel them from their territory and push them back into Ukraine. According to the Defense spokesman, Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, Moscow eliminated “more than 70 terrorists”.

In his video, Prigozhin avoided the acid criticism that has usually accompanied his public messages. After greeting his men and wishing them a safe return, he announced that the Wagners would remain in the service of Moscow. “We will withdraw, we will rest, we will prepare, then we will receive new tasks”, he added.

In an interview before the withdrawal of his paramilitaries began, Prigozhin admitted to having recruited some 50,000 prisoners in Russian prisons. Of these, 10,000 have died in the Battle of Bakhmut. In total, he added, the Wagners have lost some 15,000 or 16,000 men in this battle, the bloodiest of the current conflict.