What a ride.
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Progozhin roiled Russian internal power dynamics this past week with his threats to withdraw his mercenaries from the meat grinder in Bakhmut, only to cave today. In the process, he dragged pretty much everyone except for Vladimir Putin (the reddest of red lines in Russian society).
You can catch up on our previous Prigozhin coverage here:
Ukraine Update: Prigozhin declares he is pulling Wagner from Bakhmut, to be replaced by Kadyrov
Ukraine Update: The bizarre case of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s descent into madness
Ukraine Update: Bakhmut could be Russia’s glass jaw
Ukraine Update: Wagner mercenary chief Prigozhin: 'Russia is on the brink of catastrophe'
In short, Prigozhin claims that because of his rivalry with the Russian Ministry of Defense, his troops received only a fraction of the artillery shells necessary to carry out Russian-style offensive operations. (That is, barrage defenses, move a squad forward, if they die, barrage defenses again, lather, rinse, repeat until nothing is left).
Frustrated at the lack of ammunition, he spent all week detailing the horrific losses suffered by his men before announcing Friday and Saturday that he was done, and would be withdrawing all Wagner forces on May 10.
There was even a bit of kabuki theater, as Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov offered to send his forces into Bakhmut to replace the retreating Wagnerites. Prigozhin jumped at the offer, sending a formal letter to the Kremlin requesting permission to be replaced by Kadyrov, and Kadyrov responded with his own letter requesting to go into Bakhmut. He even offered up one of his regiments, worth around 3,000 men, to go in. At Wagner rates of losses, those would last about two weeks.
Except Kadyrov’s forces haven’t been seen in Ukraine’s front lines since last spring, after they took heavy casualties in the battle of Mariupol. There were never many of them to begin with. Ukrainian intelligence estimated in May 2022 that 2,500 Kadyrovites had been sent to Ukraine, a tiny fraction of the overall Russian presence given that 300,000 were conscripted last year alone.
Nor were they particularly impactful. They were popular on social media, where they chronicled significant exploits like taking down a defenseless traffic light. There have been rampant rumors that they’ve been used as “barrier troops,” sitting behind the front lines to shoot and kill and Russian deserters. But I’ve seen zero evidence of that actually being true. It’s the kind of fairy tales used to keep people in line. “You retreat, the scary Chechen kills you,” might keep some poor Russian mobilized mobik in a trench long past the point where panic should’ve led to retreat.
In reality, Kadyrov depends on his private army to keep himself in power. And given Chechnya’s history of resistance to the Russian empire, Putin needs Kadyrov to keep the restless region quiet. Neither he, nor Putin, can afford to see his forces further degraded.
It seemed incredible that Kadyrov would offer up his people to the Bakhmut slaughter, and it was. Prigozhin called Kadyrov’s bluff. Today, he announced that Wagner would be staying in Bakhmut after all thanks to new ammunition promises.
As Tendar notes, the rivalry will go on. Prigozhin has said things that cannot be undone. The fact that he hasn’t been thrown out of a top-story window just yet shows how few options Russia has, as their own forces are incapable of moving anywhere on the map. No matter what else Prigozhin says, he’s right about one thing—his people have been the only ones moving forward on the map since last fall. In fact, Russia has lost territory overall over the past month, despite Wagner’s advances in Bakhmut and its surroundings.
Part of that feud, ultimately, is about blame. Who will take it given the lack of progress. This interview with Prigozhin is incredibly illuminating, so let me take it chunk by chunk. The interview is in one of Prigozhin’s Russian information outlets, in Russian, translated via Google.
After first bragging about Wagner successes in the Battle of Popasna, and in stopping the Ukrainian fall counteroffensive in Kharkiv, he begins talking about Bakhmut.
4. On October 8, 2022, together with Army General Sergei Surovikin, it was decided to start Operation Bakhmut Meat Grinder - an assault on the village of Bakhmut in order to provoke Vladimir Zelensky to throw as many forces as possible to hold Bamkhut. In Bakhmut, we ground the Armed Forces of Ukraine, hence the name - "Bakhmut Meat Grinder".
5. The purpose of Operation Bakhmut Meat Grinder was to enable Russian army units to occupy favorable defense lines, mobilize, re-equip, train personnel and increase their combat potential.
6. The term of the operation, together with Army General S. Surovikin, a period of 6 months was adopted (conditionally until April 8, 2023).
It’s interesting how Prigozhin parrots back Ukrainian justifications. Ukraine has focused on Bakhmut in order to equip and train its nine new brigades sporting Western gear. Those troops will presumably be the spearhead of a new Ukrainian counteroffensive in the coming weeks.
Here is Prigozhin saying that it was Russia using Bakhmut as a place to pin down Ukrainian defenders while Russian forces trained and equipped in the rear for some future counteroffensive.
Thing is, seven months have passed since this supposed strategy was implemented, and Russia advanced nowhere.
7. The village of Bakhmut is of no strategic importance for further progress to the west.
8. Of strategic importance for the advancement of the Russian army is the capture of settlements of Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, Druzhkovka, Konstantinovka - the "Donbass Ring", to the west of which flat territories are opened, in which it is difficult for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to hold defense in case of an offensive by superior forces of the Russian army.
This is quite startling. We’ve been saying Bakhmut had no strategic value, and here is Prigozhin finally admitting it from the Russian side. Once again, projection, as Bakhmut definitely has value for Russia’s broader war aims.
He’s not wrong that Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are the strategic prizes in the Donbas, but Russia can’t get there without Bakhmut. Look at the map:
The twin fortress cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are literally up the road from Bakhmut, just 55 kilometers away. Russia’s original plan was to do a pincer maneuver—up from Bakhmut and down from Izyum, to cut those cities off from the rear. But Russia lost Izyum in the Kharkiv liberation last fall, rendering the entire tactic irrelevant. So with the possibility of a pincer gone, why keep going through Bakhmut, Ukraine’s 58th largest city, and of no admitted strategic importance?
Who knows. Inertia? A desire to notch a victory, any victory, after a string of stinging losses in Kharkiv and Kherson (which had been annexed into the Russian federation)? Perhaps Prigozhin thought he’d show up Russia’s Ministry of Defense and his arch nemesis, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, by advancing on Bakhmut while Russian forces were bogged down everywhere else.
Ultimately, there was no reason. And here is Prigozhin admitting it—Bakhmut is strategically irrelevant, but he justifies it by using the same “meat grinder” rationale that Ukraine has used. Except that it’s clear that the argument works better for Ukraine, as it is incredibly costly for someone, in a near-peer war (that is, without major technological or doctrinal advantages), to attack against entrenched defenses.
9. Against the background of the advance of PMC Wagner, which occupied 1,500 square kilometers and 71 settlements, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation failed: defeats at the fronts, lack of management, mobilization scandals, supply problems, discipline and so on.
Progozhin doesn’t hold back on Russia’s MoD failures. And he’s absolutely right about them—major defeats on two fronts, supply issues, and poor morale. Don’t know what the mobilization scandals are he refers to, but that sounds fun too.
10. To compensate for its failures, due to envy, in case of attempts at intrigue, the Ministry of Defense decided to start countering PMC "Wagner":
- recruitment of volunteers among prisoners was prohibited;
- arms supplies have been stopped;
- the supply of ammunition has been reduced to 30% of applications (since May 2023 - up to 10%).
11. The Ministry of Defense also created other problems:
- the issuance of honored orders and medals to the dead stopped;
- PMC Wagner was denied the possibility of airplane flights to transfer personnel from Africa to the SVO zone;
- persons interacting with PMC "Wagner" from the Ministry of Defense were prohibited from communicating with PMC "Wagner" units;
- special communication is disabled;
- aircraft were denied for the rapid transfer of ammunition.
I’ve already speculated that Russia’s MoD has been purposefully sabotaging Wagner. Prigozhin doesn’t mention it, but it’s curious that Russian army forces, holding the flanks north and south of Bakhmut, have so far refused to close the deal and cut off supply lines into Bakhmut. Though interestingly, he mentions a Russian commitment to reinforce the flanks so Wagner forces in Bakhmut don’t get cut off. They must’ve been thinner on the flanks than anyone thought.
Prigozhin main focus is on the lack of ammunition, down to 10% of what he thinks his forces need, but he also complains about the ban on additional prison recruitment (something the Russian army is doing for itself now), and that weird complaint about lack of medals. Russian law prohibits private armies, so not sure why Prigozhin would expect his mercenaries to receive state medals.
12. Despite the opposition of the Ministry of Defense, PMC Wagner continued to successfully conduct hostilities.
13. In order to ensure a complete "shut blockade", which consists not in an artificial shortage of shells, but in the complete cessation of supplies, Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev was dismissed.
If you recall, Mizintsev is the “Butcher of Mariupol,” who was rewarded for his bloody victory at the Mariupol by being exiled behind a desk in charge of Russian logistics—an impossible task. Putin couldn’t have a general get popular by actually winning something, so he placed him in a job sure to fail.
The rationale for his firing was a report by a Wagner officer detailing logistical difficulties for front-line units. Then, after being the catalyst for his firing, Prigozhin hired Mizintsev as his army’s second-in-command, and proclaimed him a martyr in the standoff with the Russian MoD.
14. PMC Wagner has the opportunity to purchase shells in other ways, not from the reserves of the Russian army. However, Wagner PMC together with foreign partners was refused to facilitate its own supply and production of ammunition.
Wagner makes bank from diamond and gold mines it controls in Africa, and gas and oil fields it protects in Syria. Is that enough to finance an entire war effort in Ukraine? I am somehow skeptical. Wagner isn’t buying its weapons (which includes combat aircraft). He operates Russian military equipment with Putin’s approval. He doesn’t need to reach into his own pocket for any of it.
16. In the seven months of the Bakhmut Meat Grinder, Wagner PMC lost its combat potential. The reason for this was the restrictions on the recruitment of personnel established in February 2023, the lack of the necessary amount of weapons, the lack of the necessary amount of ammunition (artificially created "shutting famine").
The lack of ammunition seems real, and maybe Wagner will get more of it. But has Russia lifted its ban on Wagner prison recruitment? Because that is as much a problem for Wagner as is the lack of ammunition. Where else is it going to get its fodder?
17. It should be noted that Operation Bakhmut Meat Grinder was designed mainly not to take the village of Bakhmut, but to grind units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and organize respite of the Russian army to restore combat capability.
18. The Bakhmut Meat Grinder fully fulfilled its task.
LOL at the idea that they didn’t want to capture Bakhmut. And his next paragraph invalidates this one:
19. On March 7, 2023, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the taking control of Bakhmut would open the way to a further offensive deep into the defense of the Ukrainian army. He called Bakhmut an important defense hub of Ukrainian troops in Donbass. In the direction of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, the operational space has already been opened, and the remainder of 2.42 square kilometers does not matter for operational space.
Shoigu noted that Bakhmut was important, in part to open up the route to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk—the real strategic prize in the Donbas. So how is he going to also say that they didn’t want to take the town.
Prigozhin is right, however, that “the operational space has already been opened” to allow Russian troops to head northwest to the twin fortress cities. Look at the map again:
Russia has control of Bakhmut’s access to the highway that leads to Sloviansk. Not that Russian forces can do anything about it.
Back to the interview, there is extensive talk about the math behind his demand for dramatically more artillery than received, none of it particularly interesting beyond the fact that Russia has never developed a war fighting doctrine beyond “level everything in front of us.” It’s quite pathetic, and with ammunition shortages plaguing the entire Russian army, it essentially signals the end of Russia’s offensive capabilities this entire war. They are now, and into the foreseeable future, strictly on defense.
Then he shares this weird math:
the arithmetic is very simple:
- If 18 thousand shells are given per day, the losses are 10%; [over 25 days]
- If they give 6,000 shells per day, losses - 24%;
- If they give 2,000 shells per day, the losses are 35% or higher.
No one counts 10% of the ammunition of the norm. In this case, the unit is doomed to death. Now we get 10%.
Prigozhin says elsewhere they started with 30,000 Wagnerites in Bakhmut. At 10% over 25 days, that’s 3,000 per month, or 100 per day. That’s … not good. He states in several places that he’s only gotten 30% of the shells needed starting in October, and specifically puts that number at “1.5-2 thousand per day.” That would mean, per his math, 35% casualties, or 10,500 per month, or 350 per day. Dear god.
He doesn’t say how many Wagnerites he has left, and claims lower losses than those bizarre calculations: “Thanks to the highest level of training, management and interaction, [loses are] lower than the calculated ones. But PMC "Wagner" still suffered significant losses...”
- When it comes, the standard ratio of forces according to the standards should be 3:1. That is, there are three advancing fighters for each defender.
- With an enemy group of 35,000 people and the number of weapons [X], PMC "Wagner" should be 105 thousand people, and the number of weapons [X] x 3 [...]
- In fact, the combat potential of PMC "Wagner" is 1.2-2 times less than the combat potential of the enemy (that is, 3.6-6 times less than required for offensive actions).
The 3-1 attacker to defender ratio is standard military conventional wisdom. Here, the math pegs Wagner’s total forces at anywhere between 17,000-29,000, less than the 30,000 he claims elsewhere. And he claims they are facing off against 35,000 Ukrainians. And yet somehow, he also claims this:
37. These qualities allowed us to grind about 50,000 soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine killed and prevent the enemy's counteroffensive until today along the entire front line.
This is so ridiculous it’s a wonder he isn’t thrown out a top-story window just for insulting everyone’s intelligence.
There is no way that an admittedly inferior force has killed that many Ukrainians. There are endless videos of Wagner mercenaries killed out in the open as they try and advance. Not so much on the Ukrainian side. That doesn’t mean Ukraine hasn’t suffered horrific losses in Bakhmut. They have, and likely in the thousands. But their well-protected defensive positions will always have the advantage over Wagnerites advancing across open fields and streets.
And the idea that Bakhmut’s defense has “prevent[ed] the enemy's counteroffensive until today along the entire front line,” is even dumber. There was early talk about Ukraine launching a winter counteroffensive when the ground froze, but that never materialized as Ukraine decided to wait on the thousands of new pieces of Western armor that are still arriving in Ukraine right now. In fact, the first 80 of the 100 refurbished Leopard 1s promised by Denmark aren’t even arriving until June 1!
Why counterattack with inferior equipment when they could spend the winter learning to use their new tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and trench-clearing engineering equipment, and training in effective combined-arms warfare?
And right now, the ground is still a muddy mess. Things will change when the ground dries, and it has nothing to do with the Bakhmut meat grinder.
Bakhmut is important to Russia because of Russia’s failed winter offensive.
Compare Bakhmut to Adviika, where regular Russian forces are being similarly ground down, but to much lesser fanfare. Or Vuhledar, where Russian naval infantry (marines) were utterly decimated, losing over 100 pieces of armor in failed frontal attack after failed frontal attack. Or Kreminna, where Russian attempts by VDV airborne troops to push back Ukrainian forces lodged in the forests around the city quickly stalled.
Wagner’s corner of the front is the only one in which Russian forces are advancing, regardless the cost. Coupled with Prigozhin’s ample skills at self-promotion and attention gathering, it turned Bakhmut as the place where wounded Russian pride would be salved.
And just like the bloody summer 2022 defenses of Ukrainian trench lines all around the Donbas gave Ukraine space to train, equip, plan, and execute effective fall 2022 counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts, so too the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut has given Ukraine the space to prepare for the next counteroffensive.
Prigozhin both attempts to blame the Russian Ministry of Defense for his failures in Bakhmut, while claiming credit and victory for his advances in Bakhmut. It’s quite the feat of rhetorical rationalization.
And now, despite his efforts to bow out and let someone else take the final blame, he’s stuck there, with Kadyrov and his henchmen laughing all the way over in Chechnya. Putin has no better options for Bakhmut, and so Wagner will keep doing the dying.