The relations between Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) have been growing increasingly volatile over the last few weeks as Russia faces mounting losses and accusations of treason arise between Russian military officials and their preferred frontline fighters.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and leader of the private military company known as Wagner Group, is a Russian oligarch who gained notable wealth and influence from several successful business ventures, hosting parties and meetings for several world leaders, including France, the United States, and Russia. Through this time, he achieved a close working relationship with President Vladmir Putin and began to score exclusive contracts with the military for his many businesses. It was speculated then, though always denied, that he had been the one to create the infamous Wagner Group around the time of the initial conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2014.
That was until 2022, when Prigozhin admitted that he founded Wagner Group specifically in order to provide support for Russian forces in Donbas. Since then, their activities have expanded to enacting Russian influence, maintaining local security, and training partner nations in regions throughout Africa and the Middle East.
In the first weeks of the invasion, Prigozhin and his mercenaries claimed to have led the charge in conquering the city of Soledar in the Donetsk region. These mercenaries have been a primary part of the Russian frontline operations across Ukraine, earning a fierce reputation for brutality and efficiency. Yevgeny, himself, has been seen in multiple photos with his troops on the frontline. Even as operations were not going well, pictures of him on the frontlines were still regularly hitting the press, highlighting his growing fame and reputation among the people of Russia.
Recently, however, tensions have arisen between Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense as Wagner feels they’re being pushed too hard with too few resources and that their successes are being stolen in the media. Prigozhin has accused the Russian MoD of not supplying Wagner Group with 80% of the ammunition necessary for what he called “combat operations.” Since the MoD recently announced that it was sending ammunition to volunteer units in the Bakhmut area rather than Wagner troops, Prigozhin decided to go public with a statement that showed how poorly supplied his troops were. The Russian MoD responded, denying this claim and saying that they had exceeded the supply demand with a total of 140% delivered.
Prigozhin had also claimed that there were no volunteer units in Bakhmut, “only Wagner,” and that the Russian MoD is “trying to conceal its crimes against the warriors currently performing feats in the Bakhmut region.” He then doubled down by posting an image of dead Wagner soldiers with a caption blaming the MoD for not supplying them with enough ammunition.
This was posted shortly after Putin’s speech earlier this week that aimed to encourage the soldiers and reassure the population that Russia would win.
In another statement, the Wagner boss accused Russian commanders of treason and wanting to destroy Wagner, saying, “The Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] and the Minister of Defense [Sergei Shoigu] are handing out commands right and left that the Wagner PMC should not receive ammunition; they are also not helping with air transport.” He added, “There is direct opposition, which is called nothing more than an attempt to destroy PMCs. This can be equated to high treason now when Wagner PMC are fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of their fighters every day.”
With the announcement of the heavy casualties suffered by Russia so far, there is likely a chance that Prigozhin is trying to build pressure on Putin to either comply with his demands or potentially make a move for his position. The lack of ammunition or response from the Kremlin is speculated to be a result of Putin’s allies trying to curb Prigozhin’s authority. Even so, he has refused to let up on his assault on Bakhmut, doubling down to say that “twice as many of us are going to die, that’s all, until there are none of us left.”
Thousands of his supporters in both the public and government are said to have put “intense pressure” on the Russian MoD, and now Wagner Group is receiving shipments of ammunition and support. Prigozhin thanked his supporters online, saying, “I would like to thank all those who helped us make this happen. You saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Their mothers and children will not receive coffins with their bodies.”
Putin has not made any public statements on Prigozhin’s posts or behavior, but some analysts are beginning to see a potential political power play for the Wagner boss. Between his many photoshoots at the front, his constant and successful use of social media, and the political support he holds in Moscow, it is clear that Prigozhin wants to portray himself as the “hero of Ukraine”, leading to speculation that he may be attempting to garner support for future elections.
Political analyst Jason Jay Smart wrote in the Kyiv Post about the strained friendship between Putin and Prigozhin, saying that he “may recognize the changing winds in Russia as being his own window of opportunity to move up the ladder to the top spot.”
Co-authored by Joshua Paulo and Matthew Dellinger