In the wake of Wagner Group founder and financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failure to make good on promises to captue Bakhmut with his own forces, the warlord’s “star” has begun to set, U.S. think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its Jan. 22 report.
After mobilization was carried out in Russia and proved to be a failure, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is once again betting on the regular army of the Russian Federation, ISW analysts wrote.
He “had likely turned to Prigozhin and Prigozhin’s reported ally, army General Sergey Surovikin, to continue efforts to gain ground and break the will of Ukraine and its Western backers to continue the war after the conventional Russian military had culminated and, indeed, suffered disastrous setbacks.”
“The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff, headed by Sergey Shoigu and Army General Valeriy Gerasimov respectively, had turned their attention to mobilizing Russian reservists and conscripts and setting conditions for improved performance by the conventional Russian military, but they had little hope of achieving anything decisive in the Fall and early Winter of 2022,” ISW wrote.
Apparently, Putin decided to give Prigozhin and Surovikin a chance to show what they could do on the battlefield, using mobilized prisoners on the one hand, and a brutal campaign of airstrikes against Ukrainian infrastructure on the other.
Both attempts failed, as Prigozhin’s attempts to capture Bakhmut reached a climax, and Surovikin’s air campaign achieved nothing more than inflicting suffering on the Ukrainian civilian population and expending much of Russia's remaining stockpile of precision missiles.
“Prigozhin seems to have decided in this period that his star really was on the ascendant and that he could challenge Gerasimov and even Shoigu for preeminence in Russian military affairs. Those hopes now seem to have been delusional,” ISW wrote.
ISW experts share several conclusions about the ups and downs of Prigozhin in recent months:
· Putin appears to have decided to turn away from relying on Prigozhin and his irregular forces and to put his trust instead in Gerasimov, Shoigu, and the conventional Russian military once more;
· Putin’s decision to focus and rely on conventional Russian forces is marginalizing the Wagner Group and the "siloviki" (or "security forces") faction that nevertheless continues to contribute to Russian war efforts in Ukraine.
· Putin likely turned to Prigozhin’s irregular forces to get through the period following the Russian conventional military’s culmination after the reckless and costly push to seize Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
· Prigozhin likely imagined that his efforts in Ukraine would continue to lend him military and political power in Russia.
· Prigozhin's recent apparent fall from grace and influence likely reflects the real limitations on his actual power.
· Putin had never fully given in to Prigozhin’s recommendations or demands throughout this transitional period and had likely always planned to put Prigozhin back into his place once the Russian conventional military improved enough to bear the burden of continuing the war.
The change in Putin’s attitude towards Prigozhin has both positive and negative consequences for Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine, ISW analysts wrote.
On the one hand, Putin is distancing himself from the hard-to-control mercenary group, which consists mostly of undisciplined and incarcerated prisoners, who are commanded in the most brutal way. The marginalization of people like Prigozhin, in whose structures people are killed with a sledgehammer, and then such sledgehammers are sent as “gifts”, is considered a positive factor by ISW.
This may reduce the likelihood that Putin will give in to the more frantic demands of far-right pro-war forces in the Russian Federation — which may further reduce the already low probability of an irrational escalation scenario on the part of Russia, the Institute believes.
On the other hand, its experts are alarmed by the revival of the Kremlin’s bid on professional Russian military personnel.
“Prigozhin could never have established a formidable and sustainable national military apparatus,” ISW experts summarized.
“As long as Putin favored Prigozhin’s and others’ irregular approaches to continuing the war, (the dictator) postponed the day that Russia could re-establish a powerful conventional military.
“His re-embrace of Gerasimov and regular order has likely put Russia back on course toward rebuilding its military. NATO would do well to take note of this development as a matter of its own future security, beyond anything it might portend for Ukraine.”