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The Treachery of Yevgeny Prigozhin: Chief of Wagner Private Military Group Offers to Trade Lives of Fighters for Russian Soldiers and Threatens to Withdraw from Bakhmut

The chief of the Wagner private military group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed that his forces have taken complete control of the long-contested city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.[0] Prigozhin has publicly feuded with Russian military commanders, who he claims have failed to equip and resupply his forces, which have provided vital support to Moscow’s war effort.[1] However, he is also an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who might regard Prigozhin’s offer to trade the lives of Wagner fighters for Russian soldiers as a treasonous betrayal.[1]

One reason Putin may not see it as a betrayal is that Prigozhin’s troops have proved their military efficiency, and they are still needed on the battlefield. Another could be personal, as Putin has relied on Prigozhin’s assistance and advice on sensitive matters for a long time, and he has developed a habit of trusting him.[2] Putin favors loyalty over achievement and never wanted his war in Ukraine to produce war heroes; he reserves that status for himself.[2]

Prigozhin's position has grown less secure since the end of 2022, however.[2] At that juncture, Putin comprehended that the mobilization he had proclaimed in the last days of September would be well received by the Russians, and that he had an ample amount of personnel to execute his warfare.[2] The chance to bureaucratically sideline Prigozhin was taken by high-ranking generals.[2] Wagner lost access to the prisons, and the Defense Ministry took control of sending convicts to the battlefield.[2]

Several videos released online by Prigozhin reveal his increasing dissatisfaction with the fact that his soldiers not only lack the necessary weapons to succeed, but they also do not receive adequate medical care while on the battlefield.[3] Over the course of the last fifteen months of fighting, it has been reported that up to 30,000 mercenaries hired by Wagner were killed.[3] Prigozhin has assembled his troops from prisons and jails across Russia, who are treated as expendable assets, while the country's top soldiers are kept away from the perilous front lines.[3]

On May 4, Prigozhin uploaded a video where he was seen amidst the corpses of Wagner fighters, cursing Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister of Russia, and Valery Gerasimov, the head of the general staff.[4] In a subsequent video, he issued a warning that if he was not given additional ammunition, he would remove his troops from Bakhmut.[2] In another instance, Prigozhin mentioned a person who chooses to hoard ammunition rather than provide it to the frontlines, and questioned, “What if this individual is a despicable human being?”[2]

It seems that Prigozhin is willing to let the Russian invasion struggle, as long as Wagner can succeed.[5] This act of betrayal, which can hardly be described as anything else, may appear exceptional (and it is exceptionally unwise), yet it is simply an exceedingly extreme result of Putin's regime.[5] Prigozhin's excessive self-focus and criticism of Russia's war efforts could signal an attempt to pressure the Kremlin into redirecting Wagner forces from Ukraine to other locations. Since 2015, Wagner has been active in various African countries, providing military services and deploying its troops to over twelve nations.[3]

Wagner has delivered an array of services across the continent, encompassing offensive combat operations, training and equipping military personnel, ensuring personal and/or regime security, providing political guidance to government leadership, extracting natural resources for economic purposes, establishing facilitation hubs for logistics, and engaging in information operations.[3] Wagner has continuous operations in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.[3]

According to recent intelligence leaks from the U.S., Prigozhin has allegedly reached out to the Ukrainian intelligence directorate and proposed disclosing the locations of Russian troops in exchange for Ukraine's retreat from Bakhmut. It seems that Prigozhin proposed to supply Ukrainian intelligence with details regarding the whereabouts and stations of Russian military troops in Ukraine. Should Prigozhin persist with his unpredictable conduct, he is likely to incur Putin's disapproval.[3] Could it be that he is cleverly insane?[3]

Despite his questionable loyalty, Putin may still view Prigozhin as a valuable asset due to his military efficiency. However, Prigozhin's actions may prove to be a double-edged sword for Putin's regime. If he continues to publicly criticize the Russian military and offer information to Ukraine, Putin may ultimately have to choose between protecting his loyal ally or crushing him as an enemy of the state.

0. “Wagner founder Prigozhin says his troops have taken Bakhmut; Kyiv denies it” Meduza, 20 May. 2023, https://meduza.io/en/news/2023/05/20/wagner-founder-prigozhin-says-his-troops-have-taken-bakhmut-kyiv-denies-it

1. “Wagner chief offered to give Russian troop locations to Ukraine, leak says” The Washington Post, 15 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/05/14/prigozhin-wagner-ukraine-leaked-documents/

2. “Yevgeny Prigozhin Is Russia’s Rogue Commander in Ukraine” The Atlantic, 19 May. 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/05/yevgeny-prigozhin-russias-rogue-commander-in-ukraine/674102

3. “What Happens Next with the Wagner Group?” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 18 May. 2023, https://www.fpri.org/article/2023/05/what-happens-next-with-the-wagner-group/

4. “Is Wagner Chief Prigozhin ‘A Special Operation Inside A Special Operation'?” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 19 May. 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/analysis-wagner-prigozhin-special-operation-ukraine/32419051.html

5. “Prigozhin's ‘treachery' poses a dangerous challenge to Putin” The Spectator, 15 May. 2023, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/prigozhins-treachery-poses-a-dangerous-challenge-to-putin

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