Bad Company: Wagner Group And Prigozhin At Crossroads In Ukraine – Analysis


By Colin P. Clarke*

(FPRI) — “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.

Though his videotaped rants appear unhinged, Prigozhin remains careful, pointing out that his anger is directed at Shoigu and Gerasimov, not Putin, lest he risks running afoul of Russia’s longtime leader, a predicament that would surely end with the Wagner boss being demoted, or worse. But even though Putin is not the target of his invectives, the fact that Prigozhin is openly feuding with the architects of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine—the shortcomings of which have been well-documented—could send a signal to Putin’s rivals within Russia that he is losing his grip on power, making him appear more vulnerable.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but one popular theory is that Prigozhin may be deliberately picking a fight with Russian brass in order to get his forces reassigned, away from the meat grinder of conventional combat in Ukraine and back toward Wagner’s true comparative advantage—expeditionary deployments in fragile states throughout Africa and the Middle East. In Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), and elsewhere, Wagner forces conduct heavy-handed counterinsurgency operations against jihadist groups, rebels, and bandits, in exchange for access to valuable mining contracts. In turn, this funding provides Prigozhin with leverage, especially as Moscow continues to look for creative ways to circumvent Western economic sanctions in place since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The pivot back to Africa is as much an acknowledgment of Wagner’s core strengths as it is a sign of the opportunism Prigozhin has become known for—recent fighting in Sudan could present an opening for Wagner to become more involved in that country, where it already profits handsomely from access to gold mines. Wagner has maintained a presence in Sudan since at least 2017, but more recently, the United States has accused the PMC of sending surface-to-air missiles to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary outfit led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka “Hemedti”), a notorious warlord responsible for alleged war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region. The RSF has also supported Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who has worked closely with the Wagner Group for the past several years.

And while Prigozhin’s growing cult of personality might go a long way toward raising his own profile and that of his PMC, one side effect is that his actions have forced the international community to pay much closer attention, generating a mounting surge of pushback against Wagner’s expansion globally. The French parliament recently designated Wagner as a terrorist group and it seems the United Kingdom is poised to do the same. A growing chorus of practitioners and policymakers have called on other countries, including the United States and Australia, to follow suit. Norway has been meeting regularly with Andrei Medvedev, a former Wagner fighter who defected and has been sharing information about atrocities committed by his comrades in Ukraine. Though initially caught flat-footed, the United States and its Western allies are beginning to share more intelligence about Wagner with African leaders in the hopes of preventing Prigozhin from gaining a further toehold in countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda in the hopes of preventing Russia from furthering its influence throughout the continent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

*About the author: Colin P. Clarke is a non-resident Senior Fellow in the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group and a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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