Days after declaring victory in Bakhmut, Wagner’s private military company said Thursday it was handing over the Ukrainian city to the Russian army, which must now try to hold on to it without the help of the brutal mercenary force it has come to depend on. .

Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, suggested that Russia’s regular soldiers cannot expect more help from the group — at least not in Bakhmut. In a three minute video, Mr Prigozhin is shown visiting what he says are Wagner positions in the city and telling his fighters to hand them over to Russian troops.

“Leave them soap, but take away your toothbrushes,” he says.

A withdrawal by Wagner could open a new phase in the months-long battle for Bakhmut, testing whether the Russian army can hold hard-won ground against Ukrainian forces who have advanced in the outskirts of the city and preparing to launch a wider counter-offensive.

“Now the Russian General Staff has to find enough reserves to fill the gap,” Dmitri Kuznets, a military analyst for Meduza, a Russian news website, said in response to written questions. “This is in addition to fending off the Ukrainian offensive, which will also require a significant number of reserves.”

Ukraine has admitted that despite the firepower it has devoted to holding Bakhmut, where tens of thousands are believed to have died, Russia now controls almost all of the city. It says its forces are shifting their focus to make it difficult for Russia to hold Bakhmut or to move deeper into eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday, a deputy Ukrainian defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said 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,” Maliar said. “Now the enemy is pulling up additional units to the flanks for reinforcements.”

Regular Russian army units have replaced Wagner fighters in Bakhmut’s suburbs, she said, while Wagner forces remained in the city.

The repositioning around the city came as Russia and Ukraine engaged in dueling drone battles on Thursday.

Ukraine’s military said it shot down dozens of Russian drones targeting targets across the country before dawn, while Russian officials said they had foiled an attack by Ukrainian air and naval drones targeting the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. .

Even as its forces have reinforced a maze of fortified defensive positions across hundreds of miles of farmland, fields and riverbanks in recent weeks, Moscow has also stepped up aerial bombardment to try to disrupt Ukrainian military preparations for a counteroffensive, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.

Ukraine has spent weeks targeting key Russian command and control centers, rail lines, airfields and other military installations across occupied territories with the apparent aim of limiting Moscow’s ability to quickly and efficiently move troops and equipment.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Thursday that the latest military actions were all part of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which he said would not be characterized by an “isolated incident”.

There are “dozens of different actions,” Podolyak said in one posts on Twitterwhich aims to destroy “the forces of occupation in different directions, which have already taken place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow.”

“Intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counteroffensive,” he said.

Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief, said disrupting Russian military activity in Crimea was crucial to the Ukrainian campaign. “Their reinforcements and redeployment of troops, supply of ammunition and equipment in the occupied territories all go through Crimea,” he told German newspaper Welt in an interview published on Thursday.

Crimea has enormous symbolic and military value for the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, who seized the peninsula in 2014 and has described it as a center point of what he sees as Russia’s national restoration.

On Thursday, the Kremlin-installed governor of Crimea said several Ukrainian drone strikes had been thwarted over the territory. And the Russian-appointed governor of the Crimean port of Sevastopol said two aerial drones had been shot down with small arms fire and several maritime drones had been disabled using electronic warfare tools that jammed their signals.

The claims could not be independently verified.

The capture of Bakhmut has given Moscow a rare and very costly victory, and made clear how dependent it has become on the Wagner forces and their outspoken leader, who has been highly critical of the Russian military.

For many supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner Group, with his harsh discipline and agile decision-making, has become a model of what the Russian army, plagued by cumbersome bureaucracy, should look like.

In recent days, Mr. Prigozhin became even more outspoken, emboldened by the victory at Bakhmut, warning Russian elites that they faced the prospect of a popular uprising if they did not put the country on a true wartime footing.

But despite all the fighting, Wagner and the Russian army are also dependent on each other. While Mr Prigozhin has some of the best assault troops fighting on the Russian side, the Ministry of Defense has a significantly larger arsenal — much to Mr Prigozhin’s recent frustration.

While the Russian military leadership may prefer not to rely on Wagner for help again, said Kuznets, the military analyst, Moscow’s lack of sufficient troops makes the mercenaries’ eventual redeployment in Ukraine “inevitable.”

In Bakhmut on Thursday, Prigozhin signaled that Wagner’s exit would take several days.

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