Putin vs. Prigozhin: Russia's Army In Chaos, The Wagner Group On The Brink
The owner of the Wagner mercenary group says he will refuse an order from Russia’s defense ministry to fold his fighters into the regular military — but it may be a sign that the Russian government finally wants to get rid of the increasingly powerful mercenary chief.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the one time close friend of Putin and founder of the Wagner Group mercenary outfit, took a leading role in the war in Ukraine just months after Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.
But along the way Prigozhin has also made enemies at the highest levels of Russia’s military leadership — and it looks increasingly like the mercenary chief has lost the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has so far protected Wagner from the wrath of Russia’s military establishment.
The military now wants to disband Prigozhin’s troops: in a June 10 statement, the Ministry of Defense said that before July 1, all fighters serving outside the official military would have to sign contracts placing them under the authority of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Prigozhin's reaction was lightning fast: on Telegram, he said he would refuse the order, and fired back at Shoigu by saying that Wagner’s fighters are more effective on the battlefield because Shoigu does not command them.
From the top
The conflict between the two has been going on for months. Prigozhin regularly criticizes Russia’s military command in public, often personally insulting Shoigu and his aides. He has also accused Shoigu of sabotaging Wagner's supplies and infrastructure, and directing artillery fire at Wagner units near Bakhmut.
But if Prigozhin is truly outside the Ministry of Defense chain of command, no one — not even Shoigu — can give him orders. The recent ultimatum signals that Prigozhin has finally outlived his usefulness to Putin, and can no longer count on the president’s support.
It’s unlikely that the Russian defense ministry would want to withdraw Wagner from military operations entirely, as Prigozhin has threatened to do — in fact, it is in the Kremlin's interests to expand the Wagner team in Ukraine.
And it would be difficult to eliminate Prigozhin, who is an increasingly popular public figure. He has the backing of the many Russians who support the war but believe the military establishment has done a bad job in Ukraine.
Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting of the Council of Defence Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization
Prigozhin is also in open conflict with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, which means that some Russian nationalists are on his side as well. Kadyrov has publicly said that Prigozhin is skimming money from his company’s contracts to supply food to the Russian military.
And adding to Putin’s concern may also be Prigozhin’s so-called "troll factory," the Internet Research Agency, a powerful online network accused of interfering in the last U.S. election which Prigozhin uses to promote his own agenda at home and abroad.
Prigozhin commands a loyal army, enjoys the support of many Russians and runs his own media channels. What else does the oligarch need to become Vladimir Putin's sworn enemy? In Moscow, people can go to jail for less.
This discord amongst Russia’s motley forces is playing out against the backdrop of Ukraine’s counter-offensive — and pro-Ukrainian forces are thrilled.
"The Wagner Group is becoming a threat to Russian power, so they are tapping into all the resources of the Defense Ministry, Ramzan Kadyrov and many others. This spat is heating up and can only be welcomed," Russian analyst and blogger Michael Nacke said in response to Russia’s recent internal conflict. In his opinion, the more discord in the Russian military ranks, the better: internal bickering will tie up resources and distract from the war, making them less effective and improving the odds of a successful Ukrainian offensive.
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