The leadership of the Russian defence ministry is exploiting and aggravating the frontline failures of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner Group in order to weaken its rival. This one is unlikely to regain Vladimir Putin’s favour anymore, assesses the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
“The conflict between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely reached its climax against the backdrop of the Battle of Bakhmut” in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, the US think tank writes in its latest report.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu and Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov want to destroy the Wagner group’s forces (both trained mercenaries and prisoners) at Bakhmut in order to weaken Prigozhin and thwart his ambitions to increase his influence in the Kremlin.
As ISW recalls, the defence ministry cut off the Wagner group’s ability to gain additional forces by recruiting prisoners and restricted access to ammunition, something that Prigozhin himself publicly complained about. He also accused the military authorities of deliberately allowing the Wagner Group’s forces to be wiped out in storming and street fighting in Bakhmut in order to spare the regular troops.
The Ukrainian decision not to withdraw from Bakhmut, contrary to Prigozhin’s expectations, led to heavy losses in his forces and the need to use better-trained, ‘elite’ forces from the ranks of the Wagnerians, which now also need replenishing.
Prigozhin criticises the Russian defence ministry
ISW believes that such a situation may be in the Russian defence ministry’s favour, as it causes high losses in the Wagner Group and at the same time weakens Prigozhin’s positions.
The actions of Shoygu and Gerasimov may be revenge for the conflict initiated by Prigozhin in May last year, when he managed to curry favour with Putin, presumably by convincing the dictator that increasing the commitment of Wagner Group forces by, among other things, additional recruitment in prisons would avoid mobilisation. At the same time, Prigozhin played up the failures of the command and the regular army in Ukraine to strengthen his position. He openly criticised the leadership of the defence ministry and the military command, supported by ultranationalist ‘military bloggers’ on social networks sympathetic to him.
“Putin’s decision to side with Prigozhin likely angered Shoigu and Gerasimov, who were then tasked with sharing limited equipment and ammunition with Wagner mercenaries,” ISW assesses.
Prigozhin, backed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, used the army’s failures and his influence to inspire personnel changes in the military, such as the removal of General Alexander Lapin, blamed for the failures at Lyman, and the subsequent promotion of General Sergei Surovikin to the position of commander-in-chief of invading troops in Ukraine.
Quest for attention
“Prigozhin likely did not intend to challenge Putin directly, but Putin likely saw Prigozhin’s aggressive self-promotion at the expense of others who had Putin’s trust as a threat,” ISW assesses.
According to the think tank, Putin, who is a risk-averse player, probably decided to limit the threat by strengthening the defence ministry again.
Wagner’s group was cut off from prisoner recruitments, and the defence ministry began its own recruitments in the penal colonies. In January, Putin finally allowed the defence ministry to take control of the battle for Bakhmut. Prigozhin reneged on his promise to seize the town by the end of 2022. Surovikin was sacked and command of the invasion forces in Ukraine was given directly to Gerasimov. Official statements by the Russian government omitted the involvement of the Wagner Group in the seizure of Soledar, attributing it to regular forces.
According to ISW, Putin and the defence ministry may use Prigozhin as a scapegoat for the losses in Bakhmut when the offensive dies down. At the same time, analysts estimate, Prigozhin is unlikely to regain the favour of the Russian dictator that he enjoyed from May to October 2022. At the same time, the fate of him and the Wagner group is not a foregone conclusion and will depend on how successful Prigozhin is in convincing the Kremlin of his loyalty.
Analysing this conflict, the ISW concludes that the various parties in Putin’s close circle are competing with each other “in zero-sum games” (i.e. games in which one side can only win at the expense of the other), which are generally not conducive to the goals set by the Kremlin.
“The Russian MoD is currently prioritizing eliminating Wagner on the battlefields in Bakhmut, which is likely slowing down the rate of advance in the area. Prigozhin saw Bakhmut as an opportunity to gain leverage on the Russian MoD and likely in the Kremlin in pursuit of his own commercial and political aspirations. Putin used Wagner to protect his regime from detrimental societal ramifications of mobilization, which also continues to inhibit his war efforts in Ukraine,” ISW assesses.