To understand the role Wagner plays within Russian politics, I think it is necessary to understand a different paramilitary group in a militaristic dictatorship.
When this dictator came to power, he grew to both need and to fear his own army—the army was the basis for his power, and he was the source of money for his army. While they both needed each other, the dictator hated that dependency.
Besides, the dictator suspected that the generals were insufficiently loyal to him, and he always feared a coup that would topple him from power.
This dictator came up with a solution. He created a new, paramilitary group that was an army in all but name, that existed in parallel to his army. This paramilitary group started off as an elite group of pseudo-soldiers under the personal command of a hand picked loyalist to the dictator.
During war time, as the dictator grew ever more paranoid, the paramilitary group grew exponentially. From a small elite cadre of paramilitary soldiers, the group became a full fledged military outfit that was not under the command of Army Ministry. The group was favored for equipment, and trumpeted in propaganda. It eventually was even given the power to draft citzens.
The name of this group: the Waffen SS.
The Waffen SS and the regular German Army (Wehrmacht) competed for resources and Hitler’s favor, and the right to be featured in Goebbel’s propaganda. The central theme and the reason for the Waffen SS’ existence is based in Hitler’s distrust of his own generals and army. By creating a competing source of military power within Germany, he intentionally divided German military resources and unified command. Because Hitler felt this helped insulate himself against the threat of a coup.
While the origins of Wagner may not match that of the SS 1:1, the dynamic of the competing military organization that Wagner represented independent of the Russian Ministry of Defense, and the competing power plays between Wagner’s Prigozhin vs. the MoD’s Shoigu and Gerasimov, bear striking similiarities to the rivalries between the Waffen SS and the German Army.
I’ve heard many western observers express bafflement that Putin would choose to create a parallel non-military organization into which to divert huge resources. Not to mention the resultant conflict, tension, powerplays and a non-unified command.
In the context of the failure of the intial invasion, the deflation of the myth of the invicibility of Russia’ army, and Putin’s need for an easy scapegoat, Putin choosing the Summer — Fall of 2022 as the time to inflate Prigozhin’s ego, expand Wagner into a competing force with the Russian Regular Army makes a lot of sense. Putin’s favor for Wagner is represented by Prigozhin expanding voice and support from propaganda. And Putin permitted the top brass of the Russian Army to be pilloried in the State Media. This was clearly political and strategic.
if Putin was aiming to make the MOD a scapegoat, his desire for a counterweight with real military strength that the Russian people could be presented as the “real” military greatness of Russia was a natural development. Furthermore, Wagner could serve as a counterweight to the MOD and the Russian army in political influence and real military power. This was a highly natural political instinct for a dictator as was clearly demonstrated by Hitler 80 years ago.
However, Prigozhin and Wagner’s inability to deliver a propaganda victory in Bakhmut may have begun changing Putin’s thinking. To achieve Putin’s ambitions to be remembered as a modern day Peter the Great and to end the Russo-Ukrainian war as a victory, Putin probably began to see Wagner as a poor vehicle to ride.
Furthermore, if Wagner’s raison d’etre is “serve as a loyal counterweight against the MOD as they are trashed,” this was effectively and decisively undermined. What was likely a whisper campaign driven by the MoD and possibly the FSB that Progozhin had presidential ambitions began growing--these were not helped by Prigozhin himself, who began providing nakedly ambitious statements. IIt appears perhaps Prigozhin himself did not understanding the precarious nature of his temporarily expanded power.
If Putin began to feel Prigozhin might harbor ambitions to replace him, Wagner serves no purpose as a counterweight to the Ministry of Defense.
Putin made a sudden decision on Jan 11th to replace Sergei Surovikin—a known Wagner and Prigozhin ally—after just 3 months as the overall commander of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Surovikin was replaced by Valery Gerasimov—the very face of “the Establishment” in the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Army.
Gerasimov began taking steps that were clearly intended to destroy Wagner.
- Around Feb 16th, it was revealed that Wagner could no longer recruit prison convicts, its primary source of recruits.
- Since mid Feb, Prigozhin and Wagner soldiers begin complaining loudly of being deprived of equipment and artillery shells in their attacks.
- in early March, it was revealed that the Ministry of Defense has ordered Wagner to honor its 6 month contracts with its convicts, and that soldiers who complete their commitment will be sent home and pardoned.
This last step may signal the deathknell of Wagner, as Prigozhin’s recruitment blitz really picked up steam between Sept — October 2022, when in the span of 2 months, Wagner obtained an estimated 23,000 convicts. Which, of course, would have begun just about 6 months ago.
Wagner only has 40,000 or so soldiers in the field. it is unknown how many of those 23,000 soldiers are still alive, but the UK ministry of defense believes they represent the most experienced soldiers in Wagner, and the greater bulk of its remaining combat power. If they are sent home, Wagner may rapidly lose the ability to continue to field an army.
After a month of bombastic pronouncements of defiance and vitriolic denouncements of the Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin now appears to be resigned to his fate, publicly commenting that Wagner is planning on focusing its future on its operations in Africa.
It seems unthinkable that Gerasimov could take these steps without Putin’s approval. The natural conclusion is that Putin came to believe that Wagner did not serve his political purposes, and has permitted Gerasimov to destroy his rival.
This news very much should be read as heavily related to the AFU talking about the possibility of a Bakhmut counteroffensive, as covered by Mark today.
Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi is talking about how Wagner is exhausted in Bakhmut, and the opportunity for a counterattack is there. If Russia is about to self-decapitate Wagner, Russia may believe that by committing it’s reserve forces and Mobiks to Wagner’s area of responsibility, it can make a smooth transition.
But Wagner’s area of responsibility in Bakhmut is immense. Huge stretches of positions north of Bakhmut, and even some key sectors south of Bakhmut are held by Wagner units. Allowing these units to be depleted by the departure of experienced soldiers, while trying to “swap out the units” represents an immense challenge in planning.
Given that Wagner commanders and Russian regular army commanders have demonstrated neither the desire nor the ability to coordinate their movements, the chances of a chaotic and incompetent transition seem extraordinarily high.
In the coming weeks as the Russian MoD continues its decapitation of Wagner and hollowing out of its forces, a major opportunity for the AFU to reverse Russian progress north of Bakhmut may arise, simply by exploiting the chaos caused by Russian political intrigues.