By Fábio Galão
Since the end of last year, Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk oblast, has been at the main stage of the war sparked by Russia against Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already said that the fall of Bakhmut would be a major blow to Kyiv’s resistance, as it would pave the way for Russia to gain even more ground in the east of the country.
The main Russian assault force in this battle is the mercenary group Wagner, whose leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is an ally of President Vladimir Putin.
The paramilitary group has recruited prisoners in Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine, promising freedom after serving in the war.
Last week, Prigozhin reported that more than 5,000 prisoners received pardons of their sentences after their contracts to fight for Wagner ended.
However, several indications of disagreements between the mercenary group and the Kremlin have emerged, which could jeopardize Russian plans in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has caused embarrassment to Putin by claiming victories in battles before Russia’s armed forces have spoken out, has publicly criticized Russia’s top military brass, and complained about a lack of ammunition and support.
He also complained that he no longer had direct access to Putin.
The battle of Bakhmut has already provided Wagner with heavy losses.
After weeks of confident speech, Prigozhin said on Wednesday (29) that his contingent in the Ukrainian city suffered “serious damage.”
The fact that Putin admitted that the mercenary group remained with little or no support in a battle with heavy losses has prompted the theory that the Russian president’s goal is to prevent Prigozhin from becoming too popular and seeking to face him in the 2024 presidential election.
This theory was corroborated by analyst George Barros, head of the geospatial intelligence team that monitors Russia and Ukraine at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
“Currently, we assess, due to the internal disputes between the Russian Defense Ministry and Yevgeny Prigozhin, that the Russians are using Bakhmut to largely destroy the Wagner group and, as it were, put Prigozhin ‘in his place,'” he said during a recent online debate on Ukraine.
The statements were reproduced by the British newspaper The Independent.
The disagreement between Prigozhin and Putin would be so deep that the mercenary group’s leader would be willing to turn his attention to Africa, where Wagner operates in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and other countries, according to sources heard by Bloomberg.
On Telegram, Prigozhin said he didn’t know what “Bloomberg is talking about.”
“They know better than I do what we will do next. As long as we are necessary for our nation, we will continue to fight on the territory of Ukraine,” he retorted.
An eventual break with Wagner could jeopardize the Russian offensive in the neighboring country since, as George Barros pointed out, the Kremlin’s troops are exhausted.
“The Russian conventional armed forces have been defeated. If you look at Russian forces as a whole, all the major combat units […] have already fought in Ukraine in the past year, and they have all suffered varying levels of losses and have been regrouped to some extent,” he explained.
He said Russia is being forced to dispatch increasingly inexperienced men to the battlefield, “which is very good for Ukraine.”
Interestingly, a Ukrainian intelligence officer informed CNN that prisoners are being recruited directly by the Russian Defense Ministry to fight as “cannon fodder” in Ukraine.
In other words, in its desperation, the Kremlin seems willing to stop “outsourcing” what Wagner had been doing.
With information from Gazeta do Povo