Despite the slow and costly rate of advance, what Wagner Group has achieved in Bakhmut marks the biggest Russian success in many months.
The Russian Ministry of Defense is watching and isn’t happy with the gains of the infamous private military company. The two entities have been embroiled in an internal feud for months now.
Recently, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu visited the front.
“On 4 March 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defence released a video of a rare visit to Ukraine by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. There is a realistic possibility that this was partially in response to recent footage of the owner of Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, visiting his fighters on the front line. Wagner is in a high-profile dispute with the Russian Ministry of Defence and Shoigu is likely sensitive to being compared to Prigozhin,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in a recent estimate of the war.
Indeed, their rivalry is becoming so intense that it is starting to influence strategic decisions.
Prestige and Survival Through Vuhledar
Over the past few days, the Russian military launched another wave of small-scale assaults against the Ukrainian positions at Vuhledar. However, the intensity of the offensive has slowed down. Since November, the Russian military has repeatedly failed to capture the small coaling-mining town.
“There is a realistic possibility that Russia’s MoD has been insistent in its drive for success in Vuhledar, partially because it wants its own success to compete with Wagner’s achievements,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in another estimate on the war.
Tough Decisions Ahead
The Russian military will have to make some decisions in the immediate future in Ukraine.
It is highly likely that the Russian military sees an operational breakthrough at Vuhledar as a way to counter the Wagner Group’s tactical successes in Bakhmut. But with limited resources to go around, Russian commanders must make a decision between starting another offensive at Vuhledar—where they have repeatedly failed with heavy losses—or reinforcing the offensive effort in and around Bakhmut. However, opting for the latter would assist Wagner Group.
To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a say in what’s going on in Ukraine. And for the Russian leader, the war is more than just capturing towns and gaining miles of territory. Indeed, for Putin, the war is also a brutal fight for control within Russia.
The Russian military could also reinforce the offensive in the northeast around Kreminna and Svatove, which has stalled for the better part of five months. But reinforcing that effort wouldn’t directly support the Kremlin’s strategic objectives of capturing the Donbas and creating a land bridge with Crimea.
The Russian campaign in Ukraine isn’t going well. And the fact that its most important combat organizations are fighting between them isn’t helping Putin’s plans.
A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.