Prigozhin Takes On Russian Ministry of Defense

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 80

The Battle of Bakhmut remains in the international spotlight, even as the active combat zone on the Ukrainian frontlines now stretches for over 900 miles (Zelenskiy Official, March 18). The Russians need Bakhmut to facilitate their further efforts to advance the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. As urban warfare is challenging and costly as far as manpower is concerned, from the outset, Russian command has employed assault units from the notorious Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

However, Wagner’s involvement has yet to “speed up” complete capture of the city. In fact, on May 16, Ukrainian forces claimed to have regained 20 square kilometers around Bakhmut, though conceding that Russian units had advanced “somewhat” within the city itself (Kyiv Independent, May 16). In hoping to achieve even minimal advances through Ukraine’s defenses, the Russians have utilized massive artillery barrages and so-called “human wave” tactics, which have resulted in heavy losses on the Russian side (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 13). As these losses continue to climb, Prigozhin has become more vocal in criticizing the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)—a dispute that has reached a new level in recent weeks.

On May 5, the Wagner chief issued a brazen statement that his fighters would pull out from their positions in Bakhmut due to “ammunition hunger” and heavy losses. According to Prigozhin, his “Wagnerites” were supposed to take the city by May 9 and then hand their positions over to the regular Russian forces. He also claimed his units were expected to capture “2 out of 45 square kilometers” of the city (Kommersant, May 6).

Then, on May 7, Prigozhin claimed the Russian MoD had promised sufficient ammunition in support of Wagner’s assaults. He also announced that General Sergey Surovikin, former commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, was appointed to supervise communications and act as “a link” between Wagner and the MoD (, May 7, 2023).

By May 9, as Moscow’s Red Square was hosting the smallest Victory Day parade in recent memory, Prigozhin asserted that the Defense Ministry had failed to follow through on its ammunition promises, intending to deliver only 10 percent of the initially promised batch. The Wagner leader added that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are “tearing our flanks” in Bakhmut, which is why the 72nd Mechanized Brigade had to retreat from its positions. On May 11, Prigozhin accused the Russian military of “fleeing” from Bakhmut, which had created the threat of encirclement for the Wagner units within the city. Moreover, Prigozhin publicly invited Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to come to the embattled town and urged the MoD to “stop lying” about the situation on the front (Unian, May 12).

Even with this aggressive rhetoric, Prigozhin has not yet pulled his units from Bakhmut, ostensibly to complete the city’s total capture. However, this is only part of the picture. The Wagner financier recently revealed another side to the story, alleging that the Defense Ministry had threatened him and his mercenaries with “treason charges” should they abandon their positions (Meduza, May 9).

Now, it should be recalled that the activities of the Wagner Group are outlawed in Russia, as the Russian Criminal Code explicitly bans “mercenarism.” And indeed, a criminal case had been discussed last year regarding Prigoizhin on relevant charges, but nothing was ever officially filed (Kommersant, December 12, 2022). It seems that, overall, Prigozhin has never been arrested because the Kremlin needs him and his Wagnerites.

As such, during the Kremlin’s V-Day flop, Prigozhin brought to the fore a striking contrast of Russian generals showing off for Vladimir Putin, all while Wagner leads operations at the front. In this, it appears that Prigozhin tried to negotiate for more ammunition by taking advantage of the assumption that the capture of Bakhmut would make for a great propaganda show.

Yet, even with Prigozhin’s assertions, there have been a number of disputes about the actual role of Wagner vis-à-vis the regular Russian forces in the capture of certain Ukrainian settlements. For example, on January 20, the Russian MoD claimed that “control had been established” over the villages of Kleshchiivka and Lobkove—in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, respectively—by volunteer assault detachments, supported with artillery and air cover. However, the day before, Prigozhin had claimed it was the Wagner Group that took Kleshchiivka (RBC, January 20). A similar dispute had ensued on January 13, when the Defense Ministry reported the capture of Soledar by Russian forces, while Prigozhin pointed out that his Wagnerites ran that particular assault operation. Eventually, the MoD did in fact recognize Wagner’s role in the operation later that day (RBC, January 13).

Following these disputes, in February 2023, Prigozhin, for the first time, slammed the MoD and General Staff for failing to deliver sufficient volumes of ammunition to his Wagner units, even accusing Shoigu of complicity in the matter. The Defense Ministry promptly denied these allegations (RTVI, February 23).

The row between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass is not a new phenomenon. It is quite common for Russian elites to squabble for power and favors from the Kremlin. And for the Wagner chief, the capture of Bakhmut would make for a compelling success story that could further embolden his political ambitions.

As some have speculated, Prigozhin may decide to kick off a political campaign on the eve of the 2024 elections—which is not out of the question given his growing public figure (, March 29). Yet, the real question is whether the Russian authorities will allow this to happen, as Prigozhin has already made a number of enemies within the Russian leadership. And, in Russia, it is usually a figure already inside the system, rather than one that vehemently criticizes it, who is more likely to win within the so-called “power vertical.”

Prigozhin has hinted at growing “threats” from the MoD, but, for now, it seems he can retain his high profile for as long as he remains useful to the Kremlin (The Moscow Times, May 9). The Russian military leadership remains all in on trying to seize Bakhmut—with the continued help of Wagner’s forces. Thus, rather paradoxically, further success in Bakhmut by way of Wagner assistance will only deepen the existing split with the MoD, as both parties seek to take public credit for significant gains on the Ukrainian battlefield. Nevertheless, the longer Wagner remains at the epicenter of these fierce hostilities, the more it risks having its manpower decimated. And, without any fighters, Prigozhin immediately becomes expendable, which could become a life-threatening development.