Why the head of the Wagner Group is in conflict with the leaders of the Russian military
Editor’s note: On June 23 Mr. Prigozhin launched an open revolt against the Kremlin, accusing the Russian army of killing Wagner’s soldiers. His troops captured Rostov-on-Don, a southern city.
A PILE OF bodies are quite the backdrop for a monologue. On May 4, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, a Russian mercenary group, stood among the bodies of dozens of his fighters and recorded a stunning diatribe against Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the commander of the armed forces. He said the pair were holding back weapons from his mercenaries in Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that Russia has been trying to capture for months. He later warned that Wagner would withdraw if supplies were not available. His outbursts are part of the latest episode in a long-running spat between Mr Prigozhin and Russia’s top brass. Why are they controversial and what does it say about the state of the country’s military command?
The dispute highlights the Kremlin’s failure to create a clear command structure in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, did not name an overall commander for the attack until April 2022, more than a month after the attack began. The role was first given to General Alexander Dvornikov. But the position has been reversed three times since then: first to General Gennady Zhidko in May, then to General Sergei Surovikin in October, and finally to General Gerasimov in January 2023. Analysis by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), think tank, shows that other important positions, such as regional leadership positions, are also under heavy rotation.
The dating-go-round has generated factionalism. That may suit the Kremlin’s desire not to allow too much power to anyone, but it is hardly the basis for an effective military strategy. The presence of several Russian mercenary groups on the ground complicates the picture. Wagner is the most obvious. Mr Prigozhin, a convicted criminal, is a public face and works in close coordination with leaders from GRURussian military intelligence service.
Mr. Prigozhin’s fluctuating fortunes reflect the course of the war. As the Russian offensive stalled, his star began to rise. By the summer of 2022 losses were mounting and the Kremlin needed troops. Mr Putin appears to have given Mr Prigozhin permission to expand his militia: videos emerged of the Wagner boss telling prisoners they could win their freedom by signing up to fight.
In the late summer and autumn of 2022, Ukraine carried out successful counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson regions. According to the ISW, these problems for Russia caused the emergence of a group within the country’s defense ministry that criticized General Gerasimov and his associates. The controversy worked for Mr. Prigozhin. He welcomed the appointment in October of General Surovikin – considered friendly to Wagner – to lead the war in Ukraine. Cooperation between the army and Wagner increased and Mr. Prigozhin’s men took the lead in Bakhmut. It is believed that he promised the Kremlin that Wagner would give Russia its first victory in months.
But as that attack proceeded with little success, the sensitivity of Mr. Prigozhin’s position became apparent. In January General Gerasimov replaced General Surovikin as head of operations in Ukraine, an apparent blow to the anti-Gerasimov group. Soon Mr. Prigozhin began to claim that Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov were withholding material from Wagner’s fighters. (Indeed, Western military analysts suggest that Russian generals may be trying to save weapons in preparation for another counter-offensive from Ukraine.)
Wagner is still important to Russia. Ukrainian military officials say the group’s units are among the enemy’s most effective, mainly because of their willingness to sacrifice men. At the same time, Re: Russia, another think tank, notes that, according to Mr. Prigozhin, General Surovikin has begun to represent Wagner’s interests among the Russian high command.
However, the outlook for Mr Prigozhin is not clear. Because Russia’s winter offensive was a damp squib, analysts suspect that Mr. Putin is now dividing responsibility between rival factions in his military. The generals who support Wagner’s brutal tactics could regain their position. But it is possible that these same military figures are trying to establish control over Wagner at the expense of its increasingly inconsistent founder. That could explain Mr. Prigozhin’s pessimistic statements. ■