KYIV, Ukraine -- The head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner claimed Thursday that his forces have started pulling out of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and handing over control to the Russian military, days after he said Wagner troops had captured the ruined city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a convicted criminal and Wagner's millionaire owner with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video published on Telegram that the handover would be completed by June 1. Russia's Defense Ministry didn't confirm this and it wasn't possible independently to verify whether Wagner's pullout from the bombed-out city has begun after a nine-month battle that killed tens of thousands of people. Prigozhin said his troops would now rest in camps, repair equipment and await further orders.
Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Thursday that regular Russian troops had replaced Wagner units in the suburbs but that Wagner fighters remained inside the city. Ukrainian forces maintain a foothold in the southwestern outskirts, she said.
Prigozhin's Bakhmut triumph delivered a badly needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has lost momentum and now faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive using advanced weapons that Kyiv's Western allies have provided.
According to top Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, that counteroffensive is already underway. He said Thursday that it should not be anticipated as a "single event" starting "at a specific hour of a specific day." Writing on Twitter, Podolyak said that "dozens of different actions to destroy Russian occupation forces" had "already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow."
Prigozhin has long feuded with the Russian military leadership, dating back to Wagner's creation in 2014. He has also built a reputation for inflammatory -- and often unverifiable -- headline-grabbing statements from which he later backtracks. During the 15-month war in Ukraine, he has repeatedly and publicly accused the Russian military leadership of incompetence, failure to properly provision his troops as they spearheaded the battle for Bakhmut, and failure to credit his troops for their successes and sacrifices.
Wagner's involvement in the capture of Bakhmut has added to Prigozhin's standing, which he has used to set forth his personal views about the war's conduct.
"Prigozhin is ... using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine," the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said.
His frequent critical commentary about Russia's military performance is uncommon in Russia's tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin can usually air such criticism.
Seth Jones, director of international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Prigozhin appears to be pressuring the Russian Defense Ministry to take a more active role and responsibility in Bakhmut but he questioned whether regular troops are capable of taking over from Wagner.
"If you pull those forces out of Bakhmut, you lose your entire sort of first line of offensive and then defensive operations, because the Russians aren't going to use -- haven't used -- their seasoned military forces" for major advances, he said. "You don't want to waste well trained capable forces in areas where they're likely to get killed. So removing them would almost certainly allow the Ukrainians to retake territory."
With Russian forces suffering high casualties and their inability to integrate their forces, he added, they "just ... look miserable."
Nikolai Petrov, senior Russia and Eurasia research fellow at Chatham House, was skeptical about Prigozhin's claim the Russian military will take over.
"Nobody knows if that will happen," Petrov said, adding that Prigozhin is a "populist and he's playing the cards of hatred" against ineffective Russian military commanders.
Earlier this week, Prigozhin again broke with the Kremlin line on Ukraine, saying its goal of demilitarizing the country had backfired, acknowledging Russian troops had killed civilians and agreeing with Western estimates that he lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, Russia unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made Shahed 36 drones against Kyiv in its 12th nighttime air assault on the Ukrainian capital this month but the city's air defenses shot them all down, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday.
The Kremlin's forces also launched 30 airstrikes and 39 attacks from multiple rocket launchers, as well as artillery and mortar attacks across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said.
At least one civilian was killed and 13 others were wounded in Ukraine on Wednesday and overnight, the Ukrainian presidential office said Thursday.
In other developments Thursday:
Russia attacked a dam on the Vovcha River in Karlivka, 24 miles west of Donetsk, destroying it and raising a flooding risk for three villages, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. The villages might be evacuated, he said on Telegram.
Russia and Belarus signed a deal formalizing deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Control of the weapons will remain with Moscow. Putin had announced in March that his country planned to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus.
A U.K.-based technology firm says pro-Russia hackers faked location data for numerous ships to form a giant letter "Z" -- a symbol of Russia's war in Ukraine -- in the Black Sea. Geollect says location data for commercial ships has been remotely spoofed so vessels near Crimea appear to form a 65-mile long "Z" on open-source maritime tracking sites. Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. The false location data increased the risk of collisions, the firm warned.
A total of 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released in another major exchange with Russia, chief Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said. The eight officers and 98 soldiers released fought in the battle for Bakhmut. The bodies of two foreigners and a Ukrainian were also returned to Ukraine. Prigozhin posted a video of himself standing next to two wooden coffins, one draped with an American flag and another with a Turkish flag. Prigozhin said the bodies were being handed over to Ukrainian forces and provided the American's name but the State Department couldn't confirm it, pending an investigation and due to privacy concerns. Russian officials confirmed the swap, without providing any details on how many Russians were returned.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that five Swedish diplomats are to be expelled from the country. A statement said the decision is a response to Stockholm's "openly hostile step" to declare five employees of Russian foreign missions in Sweden "personae non grata" in April. Moscow additionally announced its decision to close its consulate in Goteborg in September, as well as its "withdrawal of consent" to the activities of the Swedish Consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia and Western countries have often expelled each other's diplomats since the war began.