Concord Press Service/via REUTERS
- Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia’s Wagner Group, has been highly visible during the war in Ukraine.
- Prigozhin frequently casts his mercenary group as fighting on its own, without Russian military support.
- But Moscow is backing Wagner, according to a US expert who says Prigozhin is less influential than he seems.
To listen to Yevgeny Prigozhin, you would think his Wagner Group mercenaries are fighting Ukraine’s military single-handed.
Indeed, Prigozhin has claimed over the past few months that Russia’s military — the real military — is sabotaging Wagner’s efforts. The founder of the Wagner Group, which is now a motley assortment of professional contract soldiers and convicted criminals, claims that Russian military leaders have denied his forces ammunition, leading them to take heavy losses.
But Wagner is actually working closely with Russia’s regular forces, which are supporting Wagner’s fighters, according to a US expert on the Russian military.
Wagner “is not a separate force the way as it is often portrayed,” which is as a force that is “making some of the gains it’s made because it’s fighting on its own,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses think tank, said during a March 17 episode of the Modern War Institute’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast.
Ukrainian troops in a BMP infantry fighting vehicle near Bakhmut on April 3.
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images
Kofman, who recently returned from a trip to Ukraine that included a visit to Bakhmut, described how Wagner fighters, known as private military contractors, or PMCs, and Russian paratroopers have worked together during the months of bloody urban fighting around the city.
“It’s a bit of a myth that Wagner PMCs have been fighting in Bakhmut on their own,” Kofman said. “When you’re there, you see they’re backed by Russian airpower. They’re backed by Russian artillery. There’s Russian airborne supporting them in a host of operations.”
Wagner has captured most of Bakhmut by conducting relentless attacks all along the Ukrainian lines, using formations organized into assault, fire support, medical evacuation and resupply detachments and backed by artillery.
Wagner units in one sector might only launch attacks in the morning or during daytime “and others in another part of Bakhmut only come at night, with night-vision capabilities,” Kofman said. “And if they’re not able to break through that position then they quickly pivot and engage another position.”
A Russian convict who was fighting with Wagner Group after being captured by Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut in March.
SERGEY SHESTAK/AFP via Getty Images
Wagner has become notorious for sending waves of poorly trained and poorly armed prison inmates — recruited with the promise of parole in return for fighting — to storm Ukrainian positions. The reality is that Wagner has used a more sophisticated approach that results in heavy casualties but has been able to gradually push back Ukrainian forces.
“What’s happening there is that Ukrainian forces are not just facing human-wave attacks,” Kofman said. “They are facing a pretty flexible and adaptive force that’s also backed by Russian airborne that’s slowly trying to eat away positions on the flanks.”
The 61-year-old Prigozhin — who spent time in Russian prison for burglary in the 1980s — has portrayed himself as Putin’s confidante. His catering business has provided services to the Kremlin for years, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
Prigozhin’s leadership of Wagner Group during the war in Ukraine has also irked the Russian military, especially his claims in recent months that the military is incompetent and that Wagner is doing the fighting.
Prigozhin serves Vladimir Putin during a dinner in November 2011.
The dispute between Prigozhin and Russian military leaders was widely cast as a struggle between power centers seeking influence with the Kremlin. Kofman said his impression was that Prigozhin holds much less sway than is often suggested.
“If he had a direct line to Putin and if he was anybody significant — I’m talking 10% as important as he’s been built out in the Western press to be — he would not be making a regular spectacle of himself. The reason he’s doing it is because he’s very desperate and is trying to get Putin’s attention,” Kofman said.
Prigozhin’s efforts to embarrass Russia’s military came back to bite him amid the fighting around Bakhmut in January, when Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s general staff, was appointed as overall commander in Ukraine.
“When the offensive got launched with Gerasimov in charge, the priority for artillery started going to all these other Russian units,” Kofman said. “Wagner was getting what was left, and his position suddenly became a lot less favorable.”
“So very quickly, Prigozhin’s wings were being clipped, and that’s why he’s making so many videos and trying to show himself as still making gains, because it’s clear to me that he’s desperate,” Kofman said.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.