- Russia is using the battle for Bakhmut to kill off Wagner soldiers, according to a DC-based think tank.
- The pro-Kremlin mercenary army has aided Russia’s military, but its leader has become more critical.
- The military is likely trying to “expend” Wagner troops and weaken the group’s leader, the ISW said.
Russia is using the fight for the city of Bakhmut as a way to heavily weaken a mercenary force that once boosted its army but has become increasingly critical of its military leadership, according to the Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The battle for the eastern Ukrainian city has become one of the bloodiest of Russia’s invasion. And the Wagner Group, which has tens of thousands of mercenaries and former prisoners deployed in Ukraine, is heavily involved in the fighting.
In an update on Sunday, the ISW said that Russia’s defense ministry is likely using the battle to significantly reduce the Wagner Group, as a feud between them escalates.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s leader, who is also known as Putin’s chef, has become highly critical of Russia’s military leadership.
And the ISW said that Russia’s leadership “is likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin.”
The think tank added that “Russian military leadership may be trying to expend Wagner forces – and Prigozhin’s influence – in Bakhmut.”
Wagner has played a growing role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, at the same time as Russia’s traditional military has struggled. Over time, the military became more reliant on the group, with US officials saying that traditional forces had started to copy its brutal tactics.
But the two forces have been in a deepening public feud.
The ISW said that Putin’s use of the Wagner group had likely angered Russia’s traditional military leadership, “who were then tasked with sharing limited equipment and ammunition with Wagner mercenaries.”
Prigozhin and Russia’s defense ministry have also clashed over who could take credit for Russian victories.
The ISW described Prigozhin as waging “a relentless defamation campaign” against Russia’s military.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also started to distance himself from Prigozhin, with the Wagner leader saying that he had been “cut off” by Putin and that Russia’s military was denying ammunition to his group, calling it an “an attempt to destroy” Wagner.
The ISW noted Prigozhin had previously been able to recruit from Russian prisons, but that he “lost that permission and access to that manpower pool at the beginning of 2023.”
The death toll in Bakhmut is high. Western officials estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured there, though Russia is still making progress in its attempt to capture the city.
The ISW said that given the high number of Wagner troops there, Russia’s leadership might not mind the high death toll.
“Russian military leadership may be allowing the Wagner Group to take high casualties in Bakhmut to simultaneously erode Prigozhin’s leverage while capturing the city at the expense of Wagner troops.”
At the same time, Ukraine also sees the brutal fighting in Bakhmut as an opportunity to deplete Wagner’s forces once and for all, according to The New York Times.
Ukrainians fighting in the city say it has been a “living hell” for months, while commanders on both sides have called the battle a “meat grinder.”
The UK Ministry of Defence said on Monday that half of the prisoners sent to Ukraine by the Wagner Group since the invasion began have likely been killed or wounded.