Putin using Bakhmut to destroy Wagner Group and ‘put its chief in his place’, says ISW

A poster depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin is displayed as people gather during a protest to mark one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, near the Russian embassy in Seoul  (AFP via Getty Images)
A poster depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin is displayed as people gather during a protest to mark one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, near the Russian embassy in Seoul (AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s months-long battle to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is being used by the Kremlin to “largely destroy” the private Wagner Group and put its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin “in his place”, according to experts monitoring the conflict.

Analysts have suggested an ulterior motive to the Russian leadership’s determination to keep throwing mercenary units into the bloody siege, with disagreements over Ukraine increasingly driving a wedge between Vladimir Putin and his long-time ally.

The Wagner Group has trained and deployed thousands of convicted criminals in Ukraine – promised their freedom if they can survive six months on the frontline – ever since the Russian president launched his full-scale invasion of the former Soviet nation.

And the mercenary group has been at the forefront of Mr Putin’s initiative to seize Bakhmut, a small town known for its salt mines that had already been battered by the initial stages of the war.

Mr Prigozhin, a former prisoner himself, triumphantly declared in early March from the roof of what appeared to be a bunker that his forces had encircled the city from almost all directions barring one, leaving the Ukrainians with no option but to withdraw.

But the Wagner chief’s apparent declaration of victory was immediately countered by a Ukrainian general who said the fight had only just peaked in Bakhmut. Several weeks later, Ukraine’s top military commander has claimed the country’s forces are pushing back against Russian troops, who are now on the defensive.

“We currently assess, due to the infighting between the Russian ministry of defence and Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, that the Russians are using Bakhmut to largely destroy the Wagner Group and, so to say, put Prigozhin in his place,” said analyst George Barros, who leads the geospatial intelligence team monitoring Russia and Ukraine at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Mr Barros was speaking at a Q&A with Tetiana Gaiduk, the presenter of the Ukrainian online project Kyiv Not Kiev, attended by The Independent.

Mr Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s outspoken 61-year-old chief, had also warned publicly in the first week of March that the gains made by his fighters on Russia’s behalf could collapse in the heat of “ammunition hunger”.

Five days later, Mr Prigozhin said Mr Putin had cut him off and all routes to the Kremlin had been blocked for him.

At the same time, Russia has been accused of throwing more men into a churning “meat grinder”, with little assurance that it is helping their cause.

“The Russian conventional military has been defeated. If you look at the Russian military holistically, at all of the combat units that matter... they all fought in Ukraine in the last year, and they all have taken different losses and regrouped to a certain extent,” Mr Barros told The Independent.

The Russian officer’s corps has been successfully eviscerated by the Ukrainians, he said, adding that the ISW has reports that, within Russian military academies, students and cadets are being promoted early, graduating early and being dispatched into command roles they are not ready for.

“We see young officers who are being prompted to command higher military echelons than what they really should be realistically promoted to do. That is all very good for Ukraine because those men are not prepared to take on that level of responsibility and have no life experience necessary to command those units,” Mr Barros said.

So many Russian officers have been killed in action that they are running out of human resources and it will take a generation to rebuild the Russian officer corps, the analyst said.

“It is significant because it means Mr Putin does not have an effective, pristine, clean reserve force that he can use anywhere in Ukraine – which means the Russians are very vulnerable. Force generation remains a systemic problem,” Mr Barros said.

“Frankly, if Putin wanted to win the war and conduct a sound campaign, he would have conducted general mobilisation at the beginning of the war, fully staffed, and fleshed out all the Russian units.”