May 10, 2023 - 1:00pm

While Russia’s military was being honoured — albeit modestly — in yesterday’s Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, it was being dishonoured from Bakhmut. Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that troops had been fleeing the city and branded commanders as “criminal” and “stupid”, insinuating they were “betraying the motherland” by depriving his mercenary forces of ammunition. 

This is not the first time that Russia’s defence chiefs have attracted the ire of Prigozhin, whose group is set to be classed by the UK as a terrorist organisation, in recent days. On Friday, in an expletive-laden rant, he was filmed surrounded by the corpses of Wagner fighters, demanding more ammunition from Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Launching an exceptionally personal attack, Prigozhin claimed that his men are dying while those in command are “sitting in expensive clubs” and their children are “filming YouTube videos” — a reference to Shoigu’s son-in-law, the fitness blogger Alexey Stolyarov.

Prigozhin’s complaint boils down to his repeated assertion that the defence establishment, jealous of Wagner’s success, has intentionally deprived his men of ammunition, thus increasing the group’s losses on the battlefield. Prigozhin has a history of publicly castigating the Ministry of Defence until he receives more ammunition and on Sunday, upon receiving a promise of more weaponry, seemingly walked back from his earlier threat to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut by 10th May.

While this explanation provides him with a convenient excuse as to why he has been unable to seize Bakhmut after nearly ten months and the loss of thousands of men, Prigozhin’s claims may have some basis in reality. Leaked US intelligence documents state that, back in February, officers from Russia’s security service, the FSB, were not fulfilling Wagner’s ammunition requests in full. What’s more, they detail that “Prigozhin’s claims could be legitimate” and that Gerasimov reportedly ordered munitions supplies to Wagner headquarters be halted. 

Those leaked documents also note that Vladimir Putin has at times intervened to calm tensions between Prigozhin and the Defence Ministry or to pick sides in specific disputes, demonstrating that Russia’s commander-in-chief could end this feuding whenever he wanted. The fact he does not suggests it works in Putin’s favour. 

One explanation is that Prigozhin provides a convenient proxy to shift blame for Russia’s battlefield failures away from the President and onto the generals. Another possibility is that such feuding assists Putin by preventing any one faction from growing too powerful. 

However, Prigozhin has undeniably been generating negative publicity for the Russian military, drawing attention to its faltering battlefield efforts. Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the Washington Post that having competing factions “is very damaging in a military operation”, creating a “unity of command problem”. 

Prigozhin’s interests are not necessarily in line with Russia’s, on or off the battlefield. Attacking the defence leadership plays well with his online base, fuelling his political ambitions. Meanwhile, he has been focusing on taking Bakhmut, yet the MoD has responsibility for the entire frontline and has most likely been trying to conserve weaponry before the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive.

He now also seems to be actively interfering in the Ministry. While Gerasimov has met with nothing but criticism from the Wagner boss, Prigozhin reserves unusual warmth for General Sergei Surovikin, who he describes as “the only general in the Russian army capable of fighting”, and who has now been assigned as an intermediary between Wagner and the military.

In January Surovikin was replaced by Gerasimov as the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. While Surovikin has thus far remained silent on his feelings at being demoted, Prigozhin’s statements suggest he may be using his online platform to exacerbate a potential rivalry between Gerasimov and Surovikin within Russia’s military command. 

Additionally, on 5th May Prigozhin posted a video fuelling rumours that Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev was last month removed from his post as Deputy Defence Minister for supplying Wagner with ammunition. Last week it was revealed that Prigozhin had hired Mizintsev as a Wagner deputy commander, with a Telegram channel associated with the group saying he was “obviously not the last general who was out of place” in the MoD.  It thus appears that Wagner is establishing itself as a home for disgruntled ex-officers eager to defect. 

At times the mercenary boss seems to consider his true enemy not to be the Ukrainian army but, rather, the Russian Ministry of Defence. Now, as commanders defect to Wagner and he plays favourites in Russia’s defence establishment, Prigozhin is clearly going on the offensive.