Bad Company: Wagner Group and Prigozhin at Crossroads in Ukraine


Bad Company: Wagner Group and Prigozhin at Crossroads in Ukraine

7 Jun 2023

Bottom Line
  • As the Wagner Group prepares to withdraw its fighters from Bakhmut after months of brutal conflict, there is growing speculation that its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is angling to have his forces redeployed to fragile states in the Middle East and Africa.
  • Prigozhin has been openly feuding with senior members of the Russian military, regularly releasing videotaped diatribes directed at generals and defense officials, leading some to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing control and appears more vulnerable to escalating political fissures.
  • Western countries are finally mobilizing to confront Wagner head on, with discussions about labeling the private military company as a foreign terrorist organization, and the U.S. getting more aggressive in sharing intelligence with African countries where Wagner is operating or may soon seek to operate.
“The children of elites…allow themselves to lead a public, fat, carefree life while the children of others arrive back shredded to pieces in zinc coffins,” snarled Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in one of his most recent videos posted online. The words were delivered as Prigozhin stood in front of a pile of bloodied corpses of Wagner Group fighters. Prigozhin has made it a habit to regularly air his grievances with Russian oligarchs, political elites, and senior military figures, especially Sergei Shoigu, an army general and head of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Russian army general and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, is another frequent target of Prigozhin’s ire. On the battlefield, the Wagner Group and Prigozhin are approaching a pivotal crossroads in Ukraine, especially in light of Kyiv’s imminent counteroffensive. “We are withdrawing the units from Bakhmut … most of the units will rebase to camps in the rear. We are handing our positions to the military,” said Prigozhin on Wagner’s Telegram channel. The announcement has brought even more attention to Wagner’s future role in Ukraine as well as forecasting what the next step is for the private military company (PMC), including a possible refocus on the Middle East and Africa, where Prigozhin oversees numerous lucrative security-for-resources partnerships. But first, Prigozhin will have to successfully navigate intra-Russian dynamics, which could be especially difficult after his scathing critiques of Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. Beyond his complaints about a lack of ammunition provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and the high casualties borne by his fighters (Wagner has lost as many as 20,000 men just in Bakhmut alone) Prigozhin has recently been wading into more political diatribes, excoriating Russian elites and warning about the possibility of a revolution within Russia if Moscow fails to get more serious about fighting the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin urged the Kremlin to implement martial law, while repeatedly criticizing the Russian military’s apparent lack of strategy in prosecuting the conflict. He also seemed concerned about Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Many have speculated about what Prigozhin’s endgame is in releasing a torrent of vitriol aimed at some of Russia’s most prominent political and military figures. Some have suggested it amounts to little more than theater, a ploy to distract Ukraine, another information operation intended to keep Western analysts busy hanging on his every word. Others see it as a potential ploy to raise his own profile politically within Russia. To dispel any notion of a broader rift with Putin, Prigozhin felt inclined to state publicly that he has no intentions of using Wagner fighters to stage a coup against his boss, whose patronage has allowed the mercenary chief to rise from a hot dog vendor in St. Petersburg to one of the most powerful figures in Russia. After Shoigu fired a deputy defense minister, Prighozin hired him to join Wagner. Similar antagonistic actions have energized the feud, with longstanding members of the Russian armed forces, including retired Lt. Gen. Viktor Sobolev, decrying Wagner as an illegal military formation and calling for it to be disbanded. In response, fighters from Wagner released a video in which they threatened to rape Sobolev in Red Square, the Russian capital’s most visible symbol. Tensions are mounting at a crucial time in the war in Ukraine, especially following recent drone attacks in a Moscow suburb home to a range of Russian elites and dignitaries.


Colin P. Clarke

Published in
United States of America