The head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is “overestimating” his importance to the Kremlin and Russia’s military leaders, according to a new Ukraine war assessment.
Prigozhin and his Wagner forces have been heavily involved in the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. Earlier in January, it was Prigozhin who announced that Wagner fighters, rather than Russia’s military, had seized control of the contested Ukrainian town of Soledar.
But as Russian forces focus their efforts on the nearby Donetsk city of Bakhmut, conventional military forces are taking over from Wagner recruits “exhausted” by the fighting in Soledar, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank has said.
Weakened Wagner forces have failed to make significant progress in the area for a couple of weeks, the ISW argued, adding that as Russia’s military replaces Wagner fighters, Prigozhin is losing his influence in the Kremlin.
Russian billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors in St. Petersburg, Russia on June 16, 2016. Prigozhin has overestimated his importance for Russia’s military and political leaders, according to the ISW.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
The Wagner Group had somewhat stood in for the Russian military in the summer of 2022, “which misled Prigozhin into overestimating his importance in the Russian military and political spheres,” according to the ISW.
But as the Russian military takes a more prominent role in the operations around Bakhmut and not so reliant on Wagner recruits, the Kremlin will no longer “need to appease Prigozhin,” the ISW added.
The financier’s receding influence comes as the the Russian defense ministry and the head of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov, look to “professionalize the army.”
Gerasimov’s promotion to theater commander earlier in January showed a Kremlin pivot towards the conventional military once again, the ISW previously said.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby previously told reporters that the Wagner Group was “becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
The use of organizations such as Wagner had been increasingly put in the spotlight by veteran fighters and the prominent community of military bloggers in Russia.
Since at least May 2022, Russian military veterans had been calling for changes to the way the campaign in Ukraine was being fought, questioning the use of mercenary and irregular forces, the ISW said.
Zeroing in on high-profile voices calling for change, Prigozhin verbally attacked veterans “likely in an effort to undermine their credibility and advocacy for reforms and improvements within the military that further marginalize his undisciplined and brutal parallel military forces.”
This indicates the financier is “sensing and is overcompensating for his declining influence,” according to the ISW, as he also battles bribery accusations likely to further impact his domestic reputation.