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Wagner a ‘shadow of what it once was’: Russia security expert on the rage of mercenary boss Prigozhin

by Francis Farrell May 7, 2023 3:42 PM 12 min read
Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks in a video filmed in front of dozens of corpses, allegedly of Wagner fighters killed in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, published on May 5, 2023. (Telegram)
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After seeming to have calmed down over early spring, the internal conflict between Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry has escalated dramatically.

In the early morning of May 5, Prigozhin recorded a video in front of what he claimed to be the bodies of dozens of Wagner mercenaries supposedly killed that day around Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast.

In an expletive-filled rant, the Wagner boss directly blamed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff head Valery Gerasimov for the fighters’ deaths, saying that Wagner was being deprived of the ammunition to continue the assault on Bakhmut.

Later that day, another video was released in which Prigozhin, standing in front of a row of Wagner troops (alive this time), announced that if not provided with the necessary ammunition he would pull Wagner out of Bakhmut completely on May 10, the day after Russia’s Victory Day celebration.

This incident is the most serious case of open internal conflict in Russia since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with serious potential consequences for Russia’s war effort.

The escalation also comes at a pivotal time, with Russian forces led by Wagner having captured more than 90% of Bakhmut, while the rest of the Russian military prepares for an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive.

On May 7, three days before his threatened withdrawal, Prigozhin claimed to have received new deliveries of ammunition, specifically thanking General Sergei Surovikin, the former overall commander of Russia’s war, whilst still leveling insults at the rest of the ministry.

The Kyiv Independent spoke to one of the world’s most renowned experts on the Russian security landscape, London-based political scientist Mark Galeotti, honorary Professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and director at Mayak Intelligence.

Galeotti’s latest book, “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine” provides an overview of all of the conflicts pursued by the Russian dictator, while he also hosts the “In Moscow’s Shadows” podcast, where he frequently discusses Prigozhin and Wagner among other developments in Russian politics.

The Kyiv Independent: How did you react to these last few videos that Prigozhin posted? Do you think we're seeing the end of Wagner as a force in the war and in Russian politics?

Mark Galeotti: I'd be cautious about ruling him out, but certainly, Wagner is a shadow of what it once was. His videos are really expressions of a degree of desperation. They're one of the few ways to get through to Putin, given that he doesn't have any kind of direct line. But let's be honest, he's made similar threats to withdraw in the past and hasn't followed through. Frankly, if he did withdraw from Bakhmut, it would be disastrous for him, it would be regarded as tantamount to a betrayal. This is a man who depends entirely on the Kremlin for all of his business activities, the tolerance he's been given, and the sweetheart deals his Concord Group receives.

Given Prigozhin’s self-image of a man of his word, what do you think the chances are that he would follow through on such threats, and if he does, what would his next move be?

I would be surprised if he would survive that. I don't necessarily mean physically, but he has so many enemies who would be so delighted to take him down the moment that he no longer had any kind of protection. So I think it's much more likely that if his bluff is called – and it may be that, in fact, as a result of this, Putin tells the military, to basically show Wagner a bit more love – but, I wouldn't be surprised if regardless of what actually happens, Prigozhin will claim that there is now a promise of proper support and so he will postpone any action. I could be wrong, but I think that like so many such people, for Prigozhin, this kind of prison camp-loyalty type persona is precisely that, it's a persona. I don't think he's going to actually follow through with all his threats.

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So is it really all about ammunition or is there something more personal? It seemed like it was resolved at one point a few months ago, and now the conflict is on another level entirely.

There's a deeply personal vendetta with Shoigu and Gerasimov, of course. And part of me wonders if it's entirely coincidental that the timing is after these two drones hit the Kremlin. It might be that he feels that Shoigu is vulnerable, and we know he's very much a man to pick his enemies when they're down. But actually, if we look at what's happened in Bakhmut, first of all, Wagner has been really cooperating very closely with the VDV (airborne forces​​), who are there, so it should be very difficult to withhold ammunition from one and not from the other. I also don't get a sense from the Ukrainian side that the guns have been falling at all silent in Bakhmut. I think that this ammunition issue is a bit of a red herring. In part it's his excuse for why they still haven't taken Bakhmut, and I think it's interesting that his deadline was May 10, in other words, after Victory Day. In the past, Prigozhin got accustomed to actually having privileged access to fire support. Now I don't think he's getting less (than the regular army). I just think he's not getting more. But still, he regards this as a slight as well as an excuse.

Is it Shoigu and Gerasimov personally who have their own issue with Prigozhin? And do you think there's been a deliberate attempt to bleed Wagner out of relevance by having them grind up against Bakhmut?

I think there's an element of that. I think given that there was clearly a political priority made on taking Bakhmut, then I think from the military point of view, you want to kill two birds with one stone. You want to degrade the Ukrainian strength there, and if you can do that by grinding down Wagner, particularly using up their supply of convict soldiers, then that's no bad thing. But we shouldn't regard it as too much of a strategy. The bottom line is they want to take Bakhmut and on the ground, there's quite a lot of active cooperation between regular military and Wagner forces. In terms of who's making the decisions, Prigozhin has been relentlessly critical of Shoigu and Gerasimov; I wouldn't say that they picked the fight. But, unless they're absolutely saints incarnate, of course, they're now going to regard Prigozhin as a personal enemy. I don't think they're actually going out of their way to starve Wagner of ammunition; I think it's a more general policy of ammunition conservation, rationing ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

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How autonomous is Prigozhin in his strategic decisions with his units? Who decides that, for example, Wagner will continue to lead the fight against Bakhmut, is the Kremlin involved?

Put it this way, Prigozhin and his command cell in St. Petersburg give the orders to Wagner. But clearly, they do so in close consultation with the regular military. They don't follow orders per se, and this is one of the reasons why even appointing Gerasimov as Joint Forces Commander has not in any way solved the issue of divided command. This is not just about Wagner, this is also about the Chechens, about the National Guard, etc. Wagner has autonomy, but only up to a point, because when it comes down to it, on whom does it rely for transport, on whom do they rely for ammunition? The Ministry of Defense. It's very classically Russian: it's about understanding, it's about sorting things out rather than a nice, neat chain of command.

Given Prigozhin is so reliant on the military for everything, a lot of key bridges must have been burned at this point with these expletive-laden videos, even just on a personal level. Can Gerasimov and Shoigu, if they've had enough, just decide to completely cut him off?

In theory they could, but it's not as though they're in that strong a position themselves. To a large degree, they still need Wagner. If they (the Defense Ministry) were delivering victory after victory, they'd be in a strong position to go and talk to Putin and say, “these Wagner cowboys, we have to get rid of them,” but they're not in that position. It's in part why Prigozhin positions himself as being the victim so that he can say that if things go wrong, it's not his fault. I do still wonder whether the long-term ambition is to get rid of Prigozhin and transfer the fighting men themselves from Wagner to the Ministry of Defense's own private companies like Patriot and Shield. I think that's one of the reasons why they keep him there, but again that's a long-term political goal. Operationally here and now, the one thing that no one wants to risk being is taking the blame for things not working out: If they just simply try to cut off Wagner without actually having successes to show, that's something that would not please the boss (Putin), not because he favors Prigozhin specifically, but because he wants a victory.

Speaking of the boss (Putin), what do you think his personal reaction was to the videos, and what do you think the Kremlin could or will do in response?

We presume that he's watched the videos, I expect he has, but we don't know that for sure. He's quite carefully managed; given that he himself doesn't have a smartphone, he doesn't really use the Internet, it means someone has to tell him about it and show it to him. My feeling would be that in some ways he's torn. On the one hand, central to his political management strategy is divide and rule, constantly setting up alternative political entrepreneurs and getting them to compete against each other on one level. On another level, there is the fact that because at the moment the war effort is not proving successful, there must be a degree of exasperation, particularly when it comes on top of all the other things, the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive and the drones over the Kremlin. Even when you're surrounded by compliant yes-men and cronies, it's hard to convince yourself that things are going swimmingly. I can't help wondering if he's feeling like the exasperated head of the household as his kids squabble around him. He has no one to blame but himself.

But do you see him (Putin) in a position to try and take charge? Assuming he has seen the video and has all the information.

We've seen in the past that from time to time he has banged heads together. Usually that's on behalf of the Ministry of Defense, when we've seen Prigozhin backing down. We are unlikely to see it publicly. But, if there is either some statement from the Ministry of Defense that says, we really appreciate Wagner's role and we'll do what we can to provide proper support, or a statement from Prigozhin saying everything's been sorted now, but without a clear sense of exactly what's going to happen, then we know that Putin has basically read the riot act to one side or the other.

Do you see any other alternative moves for Prigozhin at this point? Besides either stepping back in line or complete ruin, is there any third path that he could take?

There is a third path, which is precisely that, in some way, he allows the Ministry of Defense to do a takeover. Wagner is obviously the most significant part at the moment, but it's just one element of the Concord group of companies, he's involved in everything from political technology all the way through to mining, food distribution, etc. What he could do is extricate himself from the war, and either hand Wagner to a subordinate with instructions to basically play nice with the military or, essentially let Wagner be rolled into one of the military's PMCs. He could just pull out; that would be clearly a big public humiliation, but it's a humiliation that keeps him rich and relevant. Ultimately, I'm not sure if he's got the flexibility to do that.

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But he (Prigozhin) must have had a good reason to go all out in the way he has done, some anticipation of a chance of success. Or do you think he's just unhinged at this point, because he's normally quite a smart operator?

I don't think he's unhinged; I think it's a combination. On the one hand, he's maybe feeling that Shoigu and Gerasimov are more vulnerable following the drone attack. Secondly, a degree of desperation in that Wagner has taken horrific losses and he's having trouble generating more troops. If you're a mercenary captain, your fighting men are the most essential force, and at this rate there's a real question as to whether or not Wagner could survive meaningfully for, say, another month or so. They basically burnt their way through their convicts, they're having to use their veteran soldiers. He's not having great success recruiting while there's this massive recruiting drive by the regular military going on. Ultimately if he can't manage, then Wagner basically becomes no longer a mercenary army but a mercenary company.

With this impending downfall of Wagner that we might be seeing, given the state of the rest of the Russian military and its leadership, is that going to bring any drastic changes to how Russia is able to continue to wage the war in the next year?

Not really. I think Wagner has some strengths in terms of its flexibility, its capacity to innovate compared with the regular military. But in some ways, its key role has been to bear the brunt of the fighting at a point when the Russian military was having to reconstitute itself. If one looks at, for example, how the paratroopers are operating, they're also pretty competent and professional and flexible. And we shouldn't forget that there are other mercenary companies coming onto the scene. There's these three that Gazprom is sponsoring, there's Convoy from Crimea. They may not have quite such outspoken and flamboyant financial backers, but on the other hand, I don't think that the loss of Wagner really would have a dramatic effect. Wagner was really important in the first eight months of the war, when the Russian military had a crippling lack of manpower, particularly infantry, and that was when Prigozhin was at his height, because the law of supply and demand meant that he was really valuable because he could provide troops that were desperately needed. The mobilization wave, the alternative private military companies, etc., all of these have meant that actually, whereas originally the Russian military was firepower strong and manpower weak, that's now flipped around.

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Francis Farrell, cheers for reading this article. I grew up on the other side of the world, but in Ukraine I have found a home unlike any other. Just like with so many of our readers, I understand that you don't have to be from near here to realize how important Ukraine's struggle is for freedom and human rights all over the world. The Kyiv Independent's mission is to lead the way in continuing to bring the best homegrown, English-language coverage of this war, even if the rest of the world's attention starts to fade. Please consider supporting our reporting.

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