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Russia’s irregular commanders, like the Wagner boss, are trying to force a top general’s hand and risking throwing operations into chaos, war experts say

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, arrives to pay the last respects to slain Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, during a funeral ceremony at the Troyekurovskoye cemetery in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, April 8, 2023.Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, arrives to pay the last respects to slain Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, during a funeral ceremony at the Troyekurovskoye cemetery in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, April 8, 2023.

AP Photo

  • The Wagner Group threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut unless it got more ammunition from Moscow.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s founder, said Moscow agreed and the fight for Bakhmut would continue.
  • Irregular commanders, like Prigozhin, appear to be calling more of the shots in Ukraine, war experts say.

Irregular Russian commanders, like the leaders of the paramilitary Wagner Group and Chechen fighters, appear to be calling more of the shots in Ukraine. War experts say they may be forcing the hand of a top general and threatening battlefield operations.  

The Wagner Group, a notorious mercenary outfit with close Kremlin ties, has played a key role in Russia’s efforts to capture the eastern Ukraine city of Bakhmut, which has been the epicenter of intense and brutal fighting for months. Russian operations have relied heavily on the group’s professional troops, as well as an army of convicts its leader recruited to boost its numbers.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s founder, and his fighters have routinely criticized Russia’s top military officials over their handling of Russia’s faltering war in Ukraine. A major complaint from Prigozhin has been about a lack of weaponry and ammunition from Moscow, and these tensions seemingly reached a tipping point last week.  

The mercenary group leader took aim at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov in a screaming tirade, blaming them for the deaths of his troops. Hours later, Prigozhin shared another video where he threatened to pull Wagner from Bakhmut over the problem of insufficient ammunition. 

But Prigozhin appeared to backtrack on his threats on Sunday, claiming that his forces would no longer retreat from Bakhmut after being promised ammunition from Moscow. Experts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, noted that this course correction could have been the result of dual efforts from both Prigozhin, and Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads a band of Chechen fighters in Ukraine.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov attends a military parade in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia, in May 2022.Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov attends a military parade in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia, in May 2022.

REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov/File Photo

Kadyrov and Prigozhin signaled that Chechen fighters would reposition and take over Wagner positions in Bakhmut, potentially weakening other sectors, should the Wagner mercenaries actually follow through with their planned withdrawal. In threatening to do so, the two “likely effectively blackmailed” Russia’s military command into giving resources to Wagner, the ISW said in a Monday assessment

The two commanders “may have compelled” Russia’s Gen. Gerasimov, who oversees Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine, to give more ammunition to Wagner, despite the fact that Gerasimov has indicated an inclination to pivot, to a certain extent, away from the offensive operations in Bakhmut, prioritize the conservation of ammo, and emphasize defense ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.  

“Gerasimov’s apparent need to negotiate with subordinate commanders and those commanders’ ability to force his hand suggests that chain of command problems are having a significant impact on the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations,” ISW wrote in its analysis. 

Ahead of an expected Ukrainian counterpunch, “these events raise questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign,” it continued. “The Russian military command appears to be increasingly delegating responsibilities for different sectors of the front in Ukraine to various Russian commanders while the power of the theater commander continues to wane.”

Graves of Russian Wagner mercenary group fighters are seen in a cemetery near the village of Bakinskaya in Krasnodar region, Russia, on January 22, 2023.Graves of Russian Wagner mercenary group fighters are seen in a cemetery near the village of Bakinskaya in Krasnodar region, Russia, on January 22, 2023.

REUTERS/Stringer

It was not immediately clear if Wagner has received any additional ammunition from Moscow, which observed a scaled-back Victory Day parade on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Prigozhin marked the occasion by feuding with Russia’s military leadership, attacking their ability to defend the country. He even attempted to blackmail Russian leaders with a threat to leak details of embarrassing Russian retreats if he didn’t get the ammunition he wanted.

With Wagner now slated to remain in Bakhmut, unless Prigozhin changes his mind on the matter, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle — which has killed thousands of soldiers on both sides and destroyed the city — continues, but with Russian forces more and more in a defensive posture along the front lines.

Backed by a substantial influx of Western weapons, including tanks and other armored vehicles, Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, are gearing up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive coming after Russia’s winter offensive saw it fail to capture a notable amount of territory.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress last week that Russian forces are transitioning into defensive positions ahead of the expected Ukrainian offensive, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in late April that Ukraine received a massive wave of heavy armor from its Western military backers. 

Ukraine’s top defense official previously hyped up the counteroffensive, which will likely be aimed at liberating Russian-occupied territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, although he has expressed more cautious remarks in recent days in an attempt to manage expectations for it.

Read the original article on Business Insider