It’s only been five days since Kyiv Post wrote about the “ever-escalating spat between Wagner and the Kremlin,” yet the ongoing power struggle, along with the drama it inevitably entails, are already in need of an update.
What’s happened now?
The mercenary group’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has accused Moscow’s military chiefs of just about the most serious thing they could be accused of – high treason.
What’s prompted that?
Wagner has been playing a leading role in Russia’s attempt to take the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the scene of ferocious fighting for months now.
Last week, Prigozhin admitted his forces were not likely to take the city anytime soon in the face of increasing Ukrainian resistance and slammed Moscow’s “monstrous bureaucracy” for slowing military gains.
The Wagner boss has now escalated things significantly and accused Moscow’s military chiefs of refusing to supply the group with munitions and seeking to destroy it.
“The chief of general staff and the defense minister give out orders left and right not only to not give ammunition to PMC Wagner, but also to not help it with air transport,” Prigozhin said in a voice message shared by his press service.
“There is just direct opposition going on, which is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Wagner. This can be equated to high treason,” he added.
He even accused the military high command of having prohibited the delivery to Wagner fighters of “shovels which allow them to dig trenches.”
Has Moscow responded?
The Russian defense ministry detailed ammunition supplied to “volunteer assault squadrons” – the name the military appears to use for Wagner’s men.
“All requests for ammunition for assault units are met as soon as possible,” it insisted, promising new deliveries on Saturday and denouncing as “absolutely false” reports of shortages.
The ministry once again praised the “courage” of the Russian “volunteers” in combat and slammed “attempts to divide,” which are “counterproductive and which only play in favor of the enemy.”
Who’s making things up?
As with anything to do with the Kremlin, which has a rather shaky relationship with facts and truth, knowing exactly what is going on can be difficult to determine
A report by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) earlier this week said it was “likely” the Russian military command had cut off Wagner’s independent access to artillery shells and heavy weaponry “as part of the effort to professionalize Russian conventional forces.”
The ISW said: “It is unlikely that Wagner is operating in the Bakhmut direction completely without artillery support, however.
“Wagner is likely receiving artillery support from the conventional Russian forces that have been supporting Wagner operations in the area since the Wagner offensive culminated.”
It added that Prigozhin’s appeal may have been an attempt to mask his true frustrations with Wagner’s inability to have and operate its own artillery systems independent of conventional Russian units.
What else is going on behind the scenes?
Prigozhin has previously accused the Russian military of attempting to “steal” victories from Wagner, a sign of his rising clout and the potential for dangerous rifts in Moscow.
Wagner’s claims to have captured ground without help from the regular army have also spurred friction with senior military leadership.
Prigozhin is clearly engaged in a public relations drive to boost his profile and has had some major PR successes during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
He’s gone from the head of a shady outfit used unofficially and on a deniable basis by the Kremlin to carry out dirty work around the world, to leading Russia’s main military thrust in its so-called “special operation.”
Unlike Russia’s generals, who have been criticized for shirking the battles, the stocky and bald Prigozhin regularly poses for pictures alongside mercenaries allegedly on the front lines.
Most recently, Prigozhin posted from the cockpit of a SU-24 fighter jet and challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – who has been pleading for jets – to an aerial duel.
But as a piece by Carnegie Endowment analyst Tatiana Stanovaya recently noted: “Still, the businessman’s position remains informal. Putin has agreed to outsource certain state functions, but has not legitimized Prigozhin himself.
“The president has never seen the shady entrepreneur as a replacement for official institutions such as the army or security services, nor has he ever tried to use Prigozhin as a counterbalance to those institutions, for that would be completely at odds with Putin’s concept of complete and coordinated power.”
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