The infamous Wagner Group has found itself in the crosshairs of not only the Ukrainian army but Russia’s Ministry of Defense after its mercenary chief lost the trust of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a top ally of Putin’s, is fighting for the survival of his mercenary forces in eastern Ukraine as the fight for Bakhmut continues to rage following months of intense warfare.
“After the battle for Soledar, Yevgeny Prigozhin lost Putin’s trust,” Wagner expert Oleksander Kovalenko told Fox News Digital. “This is due to the fact that Soledar was captured by Wagner [private military company] PMC at the cost of colossal losses.”
“In fact, in Soledar Wagner PMCs lost their main backbone and the operation itself was subjected to massive criticism within Russia,” he added.
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The fight for Soledar revealed the first significant rifts that had been reported between the mercenary group and the Russian military after the defense ministry claimed victory over the salt mining town, just 10 miles north of Bakhmut, in January.
Prigozhin shot back at this claim and accused the ministry of trying to steal the group’s glory.
The ministry later issued a rare statement that noted it was a joint effort, but the public spat revealed the real divisions. between Putin’s fighting forces.
Kovalenko, a military supervisor of the Information Resistance group in Ukraine that began countering propaganda following Russia’s 2014 invasion, explained that the fact Wagner forces had been battling for the Donbas region since the summer months was not a circumstance that awarded Prigozhin any favor.
“Prigozhin had a complete monopoly on the conduct of hostilities in the Bakhmut region since the summer of 2022,” the Wagner expert explained.
Kovalenko said Prigozhin’s failures have cost not only recruiting permissions and access to arms provided through the defense ministry, but now his forces are being used as “human shields” in the first line of defense for Russian military forces.
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Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, along with Russia’s Chief of General Staff of the Armed Services Valery Gerasimov, used Wagner’s failures in taking the Bakhmut sector to convince Putin to return traditional military troops to the area, according to the Wagner expert.
Kovalenko’s depiction of the changing battlefield dynamic in the Bakhmut sector was echoed in a Sunday report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which said Russia’s defense ministry is now trying to “deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin.”
“Taking into account the fact that now Prigozhin cannot quickly compensate for the losses of his units since he has lost his monopoly on hiring prisoners in prisons, the forces of mercenaries are depleting very quickly,” Kovalenko said.
Reports have surfaced for months suggesting that Russian defense officials were looking to remove Prigozhin as a pseudo adviser to Putin, and the mercenary chief has become increasingly frustrated and public with his complaints – even accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of “treason” last month for failing to provide his men with sufficient arms.
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“It is difficult to say whether this was a planned destruction of the Wagner PMC, but the fact [is] the Russian military command uses the Wagnerites as living meat,” Kovalenko said.
“Prigozhin is currently unable to do anything,” he added. “He has no way to resist.”
According to the ISW, Prigozhin has threatened to withdraw his Wagner forces from Bakhmut, but it is unclear how this would play out or what it could mean for Prigozhin.
The Washington-based think tank said it appears that the Russian defense ministry is currently “prioritizing eliminating” Wagner forces from the battlefield in Bakhmut, which it said “is likely slowing down the rate of advance in the area.”
Eliminating Wagner mercenary troops would also mean even higher casualty rates among Russian military forces, which has already seen significant death tolls in the Bakhmut sector – including up to 1,000 deaths over the last week alone, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Western defense officials have repeatedly said that Russia has expelled a disproportionate amount of arms and men in the area for little strategic gains – suggesting the fight for Bakhmut has become largely symbolic in the eyes of Moscow.
But according to Kovalenko, Russia can still afford to remove Wagner troops from its war effort.
“PMC Wagner is not the only private military company operating in Russia. Now PMC Patriot and PMC Redut – supervised by the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense – are gradually gaining popularity,” he said.
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Kovalenko explained that Russian officials have tried to expand Moscow’s use of mercenary forces by diversifying the groups in places like Syria, but Prigozhin’s monopoly previously stood in their way.
“Now the Russian military has the opportunity to use their PMCs and advertise them to Putin,” he said, adding that Russia’s use of forced conscription will also enable it to keep sending men to the front lines in Ukraine.