Conflict between Russian MoD and Wagner’s Prigozhin reaching climax

13 March, 12:08 PM
Artillerymen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at positions in the district of Bakhmut, March 10, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak/File Photo)

Artillerymen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at positions in the district of Bakhmut, March 10, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak/File Photo)

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 for the town of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast.

That’s according to U.S. think tank the Institute for the Study of War or ISW, writing in its Ukraine report for March 12.

In particular, the Russian MoD – and specifically Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov – are likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin.

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In this regard, according to ISW, the Russian MoD had been increasingly restricting Prigozhin’s ability to recruit convicts and secure ammunition, forcing Prigozhin to publicly recognize his dependency on the Russian MoD.

Prigozhin himself has threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut and insinuated that the Russian MoD used Wagner to bear the brunt of the high-intensity attritional urban warfare to seize Bakhmut in order to conserve Russian conventional forces.

These threats and complaints indicate that Prigozhin is aware of the gravity of his conflict with the Russian MoD, ISW analysts said.

Meanwhile, according to ISW analysts, the Russian military leadership may be trying to deplete Wagner forces – and Prigozhin’s influence – in Bakhmut. Russian forces’ rate of advance in Bakhmut slowed following the Ukrainian withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut around March 7.

ISW assessed on March 6 that Wagner had to commit its elite forces to maintain offensive momentum in Bakhmut but may be running out of these forces during direct assaults on eastern, southern, and northern parts of Bakhmut.

“The Russian military leadership may be allowing the Wagner Group to take high casualties in Bakhmut to simultaneously erode Prigozhin’s leverage while capturing the city at the expense of Wagner troops,” ISW analysts said.

ISW pointed out that the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner shows that different parties in Putin’s inner circle are competing with one another in potentially zero-sum games that do not further Putin’s overall objectives.

In particular, 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.

At the same time, Putin used Wagner to protect his regime from detrimental societal ramifications of mobilization, which also continues to inhibit his war efforts in Ukraine.

Other key takeaways by ISW analysts:

  • Iranian state media announced on March 11 that Iran has finalized a deal to buy Sukhoi-35 fighter jets from Russia;
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line;
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut but have not completed a turning movement, envelopment, or encirclement of the town. Russian milbloggers claimed that Wagner Group fighters captured parts or all of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11 kilometers northwest of Bakhmut), although Prigozhin stated that Wagner fighters do not control the settlement;
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Avdiyivka and along the western outskirts of the city of Donetsk. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces entered Krasnohorivka (9 kilometers north of Avdiyivka), although ISW has not observed visual confirmation of these claims;
  • A Russian milblogger claimed on March 12 that there is a high desertion rate among Russian special forces. ISW has no independent confirmation of these assertions;
  • The UK Ministry of Defense reported on March 12 that Russian military personnel from eastern regions of Russia die in Ukraine at per capita rates as much a thirty times those of Russian personnel from the city of Moscow;
  • Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk stated on March 12 that Russian officials have illegally deported 2,161 Ukrainian orphans to Russia. Vereshchuk also stated that the total number of children deported to Russia may be approximately 150,000.

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