Wagner founder scores bloody political victory in Bakhmut

The months-long siege of Bakhmut may have been a costly battlefield victory for the Wagner Group, but the private military company’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, scored a major political win by capturing the city.

The Wagner Group is now responsible for Russia’s only two significant victories since last summer, having taken Bakhmut last weekend and the nearby town of Soledar in January.

Prigozhin, whose public profile has raised significantly in the last year, also made a point of belittling Russia’s leadership while taking Bakhmut.

Throughout the battle, he criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the commander overseeing the war in Ukraine, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. In profanity-laced rants, he accused both of failing in the war effort and not supplying enough ammunition to troops.

Those attacks increased this week during a more than hourlong interview in which he ripped into Russian elites, criticized how the war has been conducted and speculated on the possibility of a revolution to overthrow elitist power.

Prigozhin also singled out Shoigu for allegedly protecting his son-in-law from the war, criticizing him for traveling to the United Arab Emirates with the defense minister’s daughter.

“This should not be happening,” Prigozhin said. “I recommend the elites of the Russian Federation to gather up your offspring and send them to war.”

Some military analysts believe the Wagner chief is telegraphing his ambition of placing his own people in power within the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Other analysts believe Prigozhin is setting himself up as a populist leader who is critical of Russian elites, possibly with a larger aim to one day replace 70-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin.

All agree that Prigozhin wants to be compensated for his work and could reap huge rewards from the war — if not politically, then financially, with multiple lucrative options in Ukrainian territory, such as salt mines around Bakhmut.

Mathieu Boulégue, a consulting fellow with the Center for European Analysis (CEPA), said Prigozhin is a “clever political engineer” and could become a danger to Putin because of his status as a “systemic weight on the unfolding of the war.”

“It’s a very dangerous game,” said Boulégue. “The more he becomes a sort of spearhead for all the dirty work and operations that the Russian forces cannot accomplish any longer, the more he can try to extort potential concessions.”

Prigozhin is a former convict who served 10 years in a Soviet prison before opening a hot dog stand and, eventually, swanky restaurants in Russia. His rise as a businessman attracted the interest of Putin, and Prigozhin became known as “Putin’s chef” for catering meals at the Kremlin.

Prigozhin founded the Wagner Group in 2014, the year Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and when Russian-backed separatists launched an armed rebellion in the eastern part of that country.

He did not publicly acknowledge his role as a Wagner Group founder until last year, when he claimed the company was founded to defend Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine.

Wagner has meddled in countries in Africa and the Middle East is accused of egregious human rights abuses and of the plundering of resources from developing countries.

Prigozhin’s troops entered Ukraine in March 2022 after humiliating setbacks in the war for Russia. Aside from the victories in Bakhmut and Soledar, Wagner helped take the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in eastern Luhansk last spring, which gave Russia control of the region.

Thomas Graham, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he doesn’t know how much influence Prigozhin has had on the conversation in the Kremlin but said the oligarch has become “much more prominent” since the war unfolded.

“The rumor is that he has annoyed a lot of people in important positions in the military and the special services,” Graham said. “So he’s a factor, more prominent than he was before — but I wouldn’t exaggerate the influence that he has inside the elite circles in Moscow.”

Putin has not publicly denounced Prigozhin, but analysts say that’s because the Russian leader has to present himself as above the fray of the petty, daily disputes in the war.

Russia also needs his help, given Moscow’s stumbling performance in Ukraine.

The Bakhmut campaign relied upon Wagner’s manpower, largely because Putin benefits domestically if losses are suffered by a private military company rather than the Russian army, analysts say. And many of Wagner’s forces are recruited from prison.

Wagner’s forces suffered serious losses in the battle for Bakhmut, which was more of a symbolic victory than a strategic one for Russia. Prigozhin said he lost about 20,000 soldiers to take Bakhmut, which lines up with U.S. estimates since December.

The toll his company paid may have personally impacted Prigozhin, who frequently railed against Russian leadership for failing to move fast enough on ammunition shipments and also appeared in videos pointing to stacks of dead bodies during his rants.

George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Prigozhin “knows that Putin and the Russian leadership are cynically exploiting Wagner for their own purposes.”

“There’s no love lost between them,” Beebe said. “My guess is that the Russian general staff thought that [Bakhmut] was a twofer, meaning not only could they grind down the Ukrainian military [but could also] grind down Wagner, to which I think the Russian military thought was just fine.”

Still, Prigozhin’s feud with the Ministry of Defense throughout the battle could help his political ambitions. He boasted this week that Wagner was stronger than Russia’s own armed forces.

And Prigozhin undoubtedly was assisted by the Russian forces, which laid the groundwork for the operation in August; Wagner joined the fight in Bakhmut around October and was the main player in pushing through the center of the city past Ukrainian lines.

The strategy to take the city was also likely helmed by the Ministry of Defense, according to analysts, and Prigozhin relies on Russia’s military industrial complex for large procurements of weapons and ammunition.

Federico Borsari, a fellow at CEPA who studies transatlantic defense and security, said Wagner’s contribution to Bakhmut was “significant” in terms of manpower but not much else.

“The key contribution of Wagner has been manpower because they basically recruited thousands of prisoners in Russia,” he said, noting the convicts were thrown at Ukrainian lines for incremental advances. “The cost of this tactic has been huge and Wagner has lost many, many operatives there.”

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