The conflict between the Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to be reaching a new level of conflict. Or dysfunction, depending on your perspective.
Wagner Group founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin released a video slamming the Russian Ministry of Defense for what he calls “withholding of ammunition,” claiming that Wagner Group will withdraw from Bakhmut on May 10 after trading positions with Russian army units. He cursed at the Ministry of Defense leadership and General Gerasimov, and in a similar video released on May 4th, used dead Wagner soldiers are props to make a graphic point about what he claims are consequences of the lack of ammunition.
As to the threat to withdraw, it is important to note how conditional this threat is. Prigozhin says:
- Wagner is retreating only due to a lack of ammunition
- Wagner will trade places with Russian Army units
It should be noted that if the Russian MoD agrees to increase the amount Wagner is getting by 1 bullet, in theory, Prigozhin could “truthfully” claim victory and cancel the withdrawal.
Also, Prigozhin does not have the authority to order any Russian units to take the place of Wagner, so to pull off such an exchange of positions, he would need the cooperation of the Ministry of Defense.
Prigozhin explicitly did not threaten to abandon the ground that Russian forces gained in Bakhmut over the last several months by leaving the positions vacant.
So right off the bat, my view of Prigozhin’s threat to pull Wagner out of Bakhmut is
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
I don’t think this is a realistic threat at all. Come May 10th, I expect Prigozhin will either claim victory saying the Russian MoD increased the amount of munitions they are sending so Wagner can fight on, although it’s not enough (or something like it).
Or, he’ll claim that there aren’t enough troops available right now to take over Wagner’s positions, so for Russia’s benefit, Wagner will suffer on for now, although without more munitions they can’t hold out.
If Wagner actually withdraws, and Russian regular army soldiers take their place, count me as a guy who’ll be pretty astonished.
That being said, this move does represent a major escalation in the internal battles between the Ministry of Defense and Wagner Group.
I covered in QEs how when Putin soured on Wagner’s failure to capture Bakhmut in January, making Valery Gerosimov the commander of the Ukraine War, the Ministry of Defense made a series of moves seemingly intended to destroy Wagner.
Then in April, Putin seemed to sour on the Russian Regular Army after they failed to secure Donbas or really make any substantial gains in the Russian Winter Offensive, reversing many of the moves from Feb/March intended to harm Wagner.
It should also be noted that this move comes just days after Putin removed the former head of logistics for the Russian Army, and replaced him with Alexei Kuzmenkov, a member of Rosgvardiya (National Guard), yet another military organization within Russia not under the Ministry of Defense’s control.
And all of Prigozhin’s vitriol was directed at Minister of Defense Shoigu and General Gerasimov. Prigozhin conducted his speech in front of bodies of dead Wagner soldiers, and pointed at them saying, “Shoigu, Gerasimov, where the fuck are our shells? Look at them, bitches.”
Prigozhin conspicuously did not criticize Kuzmenkov, who is theoretically the general now in charge of Russian logistics, who was just appointed by Putin.
Prigozhin has a history of using bombastic language and dramatic performances to at least give the appearance of pushing around the Ministry of Defense on the issue of logistics. He posted numerous photos of dead Wagner soldiers in February, claiming they died due to ammunition shortages: quite similar to what he did today.
At the time, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner’s share of artillery shells was increased in response to his complaints.
Furthermore, this comes on the heels of Minister of Defense Shoigu announcing that Russia expanded its ammunition capacity just 3 days ago.
This also takes place within the context of the Russian Army likely trying to conserve ammunition to prepare for the Ukraine counteroffensive. Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive is broadly expected to start within weeks, and Russia will likely need large quantities of artillery shells in defense. Cutbacks in Wagner artillery shells may be a result of conservation efforts by the Russian army.
All of this seems to point to a power move by Prigozhin trying to stake his claim on a greater share of the artillery shells from increased production, as well as to push for Wagner to receive the resources it needs to capture Bakhmut.
Winning Bakhmut has taken on great symbolic importance for Wagner and Prigozhin personally. Thus Prigozhin may be concerned that “preparation for defending against the counteroffensive” may be taking precedence over Wagner’s attempt to complete the capture of Bakhmut.
In Russia’s twisted military-political landscape of divided military command and resources, plays for power and public support may be taking precedence over military calculation.
Special thanks to BarbeCul for his editing work on my diaries
Full translated video of Prigozhin’s statement.