June 1, 2023

IntelBrief: Wagner Group Preparing to Exit Bakhmut as Uncertainty Surrounds Prighozin’s Next Move

AP Photo/Libkos

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, millionaire head of the Russian private military company the Wagner Group, has announced that they will hand over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut as of today, June 1st.
  • Bakhmut was not an early operational objective for Russia but became a political, as much as operational, objective by Fall 2022 and served as a focal point for Wagner’s frontline efforts, often leading to a tense relationship with the Kremlin.
  • The year-long battle in Bakhmut has also changed the qualitative nature of the Wagner Group, from an elite fighting force to untrained convicts serving as cannon fodder. An estimated 20,000 Wagner fighters have died in Bakhmut.
  • Russian control of Bakhmut comes as the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive reportedly approaches and drone attacks target Moscow, including an exclusive suburb home to elite political and cultural figures.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, millionaire head of the Russian private military company the Wagner Group, has announced that his forces will hand over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut as of today, June 1st, following a self-declared victory. Western media outlets have stressed that it remains difficult to independently verify Prigozhin’s declaration of victory, though the Kyiv Independent reported on May 22 that Bakhmut had effectively been occupied by Russian troops. The Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar reported on May 22 that Ukrainian forces were still fighting in the city. "The struggle for dominant heights continues on the flanks – the north and south of the suburbs," she said. "Our fighters do not give the enemy the opportunity to gain a foothold there." The Institute for the Study of War noted, “The Russian year-long drive began as part of a theoretically sensible but overly-ambitious operational effort but ended as a purely symbolic gesture that cost tens of thousands of Russian casualties.”

Bakhmut was not an early operational objective for Russia but was intended to facilitate the army’s efforts to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east and secure the borders of the Donetsk Oblast by taking Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. However, Ukraine’s victories in Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022 redirected Russia toward Bakhmut, which then became a political, as much as an operational, objective. However, it has proven to be a difficult year-long battle that witnessed the Wagner Group assuming responsibility for the front line and an extremely public and contentious relationship between Prigozhin and the Kremlin, whom he has accused of mishandling the war and withholding critical materiel from Wagner forces when they were most needed. Approximately three weeks ago, Prigozhin posted an angry video on social media of himself, standing by a pile of apparently dead fighters, accusing the Russian military of causing the loss of life by withholding ammunition supplies. “You think you are the masters of this life? Don’t think that you can dispose of their lives, that because you have warehouses of ammunition that you have that right,” he is seen as saying on a video posted by CNN. It appears to have been effective as he remained in Bakhmut with his forces until the scheduled handover, though he remains one of the very few who have survived making such stern and public criticisms of Moscow’s handling of the war. Bakhmut has been a war of attrition and has been a costly one for Moscow in the end, given the casualty count, though both sides appear to have deemed the cost in blood and treasure worthwhile to deny the other an important symbolic victory.

The year-long battle in Bakhmut has also changed the qualitative nature of the Wagner Group. Across the Middle East and Africa, and in particular in places like Syria, Libya, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, and Mali, the Wagner Group has operated as a kind of conglomerate, offering specialized private military security forces but accepting in return access to natural resources and commercial interests that allows for the proliferation of Prigozhin-established companies to service these extractive industries. However, in Ukraine – and Bakhmut in particular – the fighting has required Prigozhin to boost the ranks of fighters by recruiting convicts, an effort that started in the summer of 2022, wherein prisoners conscripted into Wagner’s ranks were offered pardons in exchange for at least six months of service in Ukraine. By February 2023, Prigozhin allegedly ceased recruiting prisoners and declared, "The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped. We are fulfilling all our obligations to those who work for us now," he said, as reported by Reuters. The scale of fighting in Bakhmut warranted less of the elite fighting force that Wagner projects elsewhere to drum up business, but waves and waves of cannon fodder to secure a Pyrrhic victory. Prigozhin himself has estimated his losses in Bakhmut as 20,000 fighters. Experts have suggested that following a withdrawal from Bakhmut, Wagner may seek to reduce its footprint in Ukraine and refocus its efforts and investments throughout Africa, where several governments have sought their assistance in quelling domestic political opposition or jihadist violence, despite the widespread reports of human rights violations, including potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, perpetrated by the group.

The long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive, with weapons, equipment, and materiel from Western allies in ample supply, is imminent, with much confusion about the exact start date and some officials indicating that it may have already begun and would be a series of events rather than having a single start time. At a security conference in Slovakia recently, Ukraine’s State Secretary for Defense Kostiantyn Vashchenko said it could start in “several days,” while Jaroslav Nad’, who was until May Slovakia’s Defense Minister, said he expected that Ukraine would lead “not only one single counter-offensive, but probably a round of offensives.” Some have suggested that the drone attacks on Moscow earlier this week were an opening volley though details continue to unfold. Prigozhin has used the opportunity to chastise the Russian military and political elite once again, accusing them of being out of touch with the realities of the conflict and the people fighting it, ensconced in the exclusive Rublyovka suburb. Having already warned of a coming revolution in which he claimed that the disparity between poorer youths dying while fighting on the frontlines of Ukraine and the children of the elite living in luxury would lead to an uprising reminiscent of the 1917 revolution, Prigozhin said (as reported by BBC) of the drone attacks which landed near the homes of several prominent Russians, “Let your houses burn.”