The notorious Wagner Group has found itself in the crossfire of not only the Ukrainian army but the Russian Defense Ministry after its mercenary leader loses the trust of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Once a key Putin ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin is fighting for the survival of his mercenary forces in eastern Ukraine as the fight continues for Bakhmut after months of grueling war.
“After the Solidar battle, Yevgeny Prigozhin has lost Putin’s confidence,” Wagner expert Oleksandr Kovalenko told Fox News Digital. This is due to the fact that Wagner captured Solidar [private military company] PMCs at the cost of huge losses.
“In fact, Solidar Wagner’s PMCs lost their main backbone and the operation itself was severely criticized inside Russia,” he added.
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The battle for Solidar exposed the first major reported disagreements 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 responded to this allegation, accusing the ministry of trying to steal the group’s glory.
The ministry later issued a rare statement indicating it was a joint effort, but the public spat exposed the real divisions among the forces fighting Putin.
The fact that Wagner’s forces had been fighting for the Donbass since the summer months was not a circumstance that was doing Prigozhin any favors, explained Kovalenko, the military overseer of the Information Resistance group in Ukraine that began facing propaganda after the 2014 Russian invasion.
“Since the summer of 2022, Prigozhin has had a complete monopoly on the conduct of hostilities in the Bakhmut region,” explained the Wagner expert.
Not only have Prigozhin’s failures cost him conscription permits and access to weapons provided by the Defense Ministry, Kovalenko said, but now his forces are used as “human shields” in the Russian military’s first line of defense.
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Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, along with Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, exploited Wagner’s failures to capture the Bakhmut sector to persuade Putin to return conventional military forces to the area, according to the Wagner expert.
Kovalenko’s portrayal of the changing battlefield dynamics in the Bakhmut sector was echoed in a report released Sunday by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which said the Russian Defense Ministry was now attempting to “deliberately expend both elite troops and convicts in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and thwart his ambitions.” In achieving greater influence in the Kremlin.
“Considering the fact that now Prigozhin cannot quickly compensate for the losses of his units because he lost his monopoly on the employment of prisoners in prisons, the mercenary forces are running out very quickly,” Kovalenko said.
Reports have surfaced for months that Russian defense officials have been looking to remove Prigozhin as a pseudo-adviser to Putin, and the mercenary chief has become increasingly frustrated and public with his grievances — even accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of “treason” last month for failing to do so. Provide his men with adequate weapons.
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“It is difficult to say whether this was the planned destruction of the Wagner PMC, but the fact is [is] Kovalenko said that the Russian military leadership uses Wagnerites as living meat.
“Prigozhin is currently unable to do anything,” he added. He had no way of resisting.
According to the ISW, Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner’s forces from Bakhmut, but it is unclear how that could happen or what it could mean for Prigozhin.
The Russian Defense Ministry, the Washington-based think tank said, appears to be “currently prioritizing the removal” of Wagner’s forces from the battlefield in Bakhmut, which it said would “likely slow the rate of advance in the region.”
Eliminating Wagner’s mercenary forces would also mean higher casualty rates among Russia’s military forces, which have already seen a high death toll in the Bakhmut sector — including as many as 1,000 over the past week alone, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Western defense officials have repeatedly said that Russia has expelled a disproportionate amount of weapons and men into the region for little strategic gain—suggesting that the fight for Bakhmut has become largely symbolic in Moscow’s eyes.
But according to Kovalenko, Russia could still afford to remove Wagner forces from its war effort.
“PMC Wagner is not the only private military company operating in Russia. Now Patriot and PMC Redut – under the supervision of the Russian Defense Ministry – are gradually gaining popularity,” he said.
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Russian officials have tried to expand Moscow’s use of mercenary forces by diversifying groups in places like Syria, Kovalenko explained, but Prigozhin’s monopoly previously stood in their way.
“Now the Russian military has the opportunity to use its military companies and advertise them to Putin,” he said, adding that Russia’s use of conscription would also enable it to continue to send men to the front lines in Ukraine.
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