Is Russia's Defense Ministry Using Bakhmut To Eliminate The Wagner Group?
Even as Ukraine struggles to hold onto the last remaining bits of the eastern city, military experts say the official Russian military apparatus may have decided to rid itself of the Wagner mercenaries and bury them all in Bakhmut.
The infamous Wagner Group, whose fighters are accused of some of Russia's most horrific war crimes, has been engaged over the past two months in some of the fiercest fighting in the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. But the mercenary company, which boasts on a near daily basis that it is about to conquer the eastern city, is simultaneously facing the risk of demise and being disbanded because of Kremlin maneuvering, several military experts suggest.
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Wagner fighters, many of whom were recruited from Russian prisons, are facing colossal losses in Bakhmut, and are increasingly short on ammunition and supplies. Some experts now believe the official Russian military may be deliberately under-supplying the mercenaries, hoping they will be wiped out.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been left out in the cold, reduced to complaining on social media that his fighters are dying en masse, starved of ammunition.
Alexander Kovalenko, a political-military columnist for the Information Resistance group, believes Prigozhin’s complaints may have some merit: “Today, the Russian occupation troops use the Wagner PMCs in the area of the Bakhmut bridgehead solely as a human shield,” Kovalenko said late last month.
Prigozhin is no one's friend
The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War came to a similar conclusion, suggesting in March that the Russian military is “prioritizing eliminating Wagner on the battlefields in Bakhmut.”
Prigozhin has clashed with senior Russian military commanders – and despite losing an untold number of soldiers to the deadly fighting in Bakhmut, he has failed to make real gains at the front.
I think Putin just washed his hands of it.
It’s unclear whether Putin is steering a possible plan to destroy Wagner. According to Gleb Karakulov, a former employee of the Federal Protective Service, which is tasked with protecting the president, Putin does not use the internet, and gets his information from Ministry of Defense aides. He may not even be aware that Prigozhin is complaining publicly about the lack of arms and supplies, or that he has found his channels of communication with the Kremlin cut off and that his fighters are dying in huge numbers at the front.
“I think Putin just, so to speak, washed his hands of it. He once supported Prigozhin. Without a direct order from Putin, of course, no one, including Prigozhin, could go to prisons and recruit soldiers. But now, apparently, Putin has taken a kind of neutral position. So they began to deal with it in the usual generals' manner: ‘And now we're not going to give you any shells; do whatever you want,’” explains military and political expert Yuri Fedorov.
Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin has often been described as having high-level connections in the Kremlin. Putin seemed to have boundless trust in Prigozhin, and allowed him to conduct military and economic activities in Ukraine independently of the Ministry of Defense and to recruit mercenaries from prisons, even promising them pardons in exchange for service.
But as the war dragged on, Wagner forces haven’t been able to turn the tide, even after bulking up their ranks with ex-prisoners. Instead, Russia has gradually shifted to the defense of previously occupied positions. At the same time, the hunt for the guilty started in the Kremlin and among Russia’s top military brass.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov sensed how Putin's trust in militarized patriots like Prigozhin waned, and shifted back to the old military establishment. Kadyrov and his fighters laid low, and were hardly seen or heard from for months. But Prigozhin continued to take an active part in the war, and public conflicts with Defenise Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov – not to mention more minor military officials – soon followed.
Prigozhin accused all of them of errors of command and corruption. In response, the military machine of the Russian Federation rebelled against the Wagner boss – who had never fit into the circle of the Kremlin elite to begin with. He was excommunicated: cut off from communication with Putin, banned from recruiting prisoners and blocked from the media.
PMC Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin arrives for a farewell ceremony for the late war correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky (Maxim Fomin) at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery.
Meat assaults: this is what Ukrainian and independent Russian media call the tactic used by Wagner and some Russian army units to capture positions by relying on pure numbers. As Wagner’s prisoner fighters are thrown towards Ukrainian guns and wiped out en masse, they help Russian forces in the rear locate Ukrainian military positions. Russia has used this practice along the front line for over six months. Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines say the sites of some of these assaults are covered with the corpses of Russian mercenaries.
No body, no case.
This use of Wagner is logical for the Kremlin: the funerals of regular Russian soldiers and images of zinc coffins coming home fuel discontent about the war. The cemeteries of contract soldiers from private companies, on the other hand, are just statistics, which may not even be tracked at all.
Therefore, although Prigozhin himself has fallen out of favor, the Ministry of Defense is still enthusiastic about mercenaries. They have even decided to hold off on the second wave of mobilization, hoping to recruit enough people under contract. In many regions of Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, advertisements for contract services are everywhere – on every TV channel, playing before clips on Russian PornHub and decorating the main pages of school websites.
Prigozhin can be removed physically or jailed on some pretext, but it’s easiest to deal with the Wagner Group at the front. No body, no case.
The new PMCs
British intelligence has suggested that more private military companies may emerge in Russia – but they likely will be kept on a close leash, managed directly by the Ministry of Defense or by people close to it.
Russian lawyer and blogger Mark Feigin also believes that the ministry will continue to create and use private military companies, but most likely not in Ukraine.
"Wagner and similar organizations proved effective in Syria and Libya. With the help of mercenaries, it is possible to solve military and security tasks while avoiding responsibility,” Feigin says, noting that even the owner of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom is reported to have started his own PMC.
According to the expert, PMCs have several significant advantages: as conditional volunteers, they are to blame when they die or get wounded, and the state does not have to support their families or pay pensions. The expected lifespan for these fighters is not long, so the higher wages paid by PMCs like Wagner are not a long-term problem for the Kremlin. And crucially, they allow Russian authorities to hide the true number of dead and missing. It is impossible to calculate Wagner casualties because nobody knows how many people have joined its ranks in the first place.
Whether these new Russian military tactics will be successful remains unclear; we will see when the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive begins. But the fate of the infamous Wagner Group may have already been decided.
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