The Battle of Bakhmut and the Prigozhin Psychodrama
A month ago, I wrote about the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive and the ongoing battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. While little has shifted on the ground since then, much appears to be changing in the way the war is going according to Russian military commanders, bloggers and public commentators.
Over the last week, a weird and bizarre psychodrama has played itself out in the Russian public space, with Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Private Military Company, playing a key role. His units have been engaged in what he has described as Operation Bakhmut Meat Grinder which, according to Prigozhin himself, has no strategic value other than tying up and wearing down Ukrainian forces.
Prigozhin is an unusual character who rose from Russia’s criminal underclass to front one of the most powerful mercenary groups in the world. He speaks harshly, swears a lot and has a habit of criticising, mocking and insulting top military officers like Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, and even Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu.
As a Western reader, you may baulk at the idea that you ought to concern yourself with the infighting among Russia’s military commanders. However the scale and nature of their bickering not only tells us much about how they feel the conflict is going, it also helps to understand why they are as frustrated with what is happening as they are.
Prigozhin’s harsh criticism and insults have come at a cost. First, his main source of reinforcements – Russia’s prisons and penal colonies – was taken away from him when Wagner was forced to stop recruiting convicts, almost certainly by the Ministry of Defence he spent so much time attacking.
Rather than having the desired effect of getting him to calm down, this seems to have enraged Prigozhin further. He continued his criticisms and the Russian MoD responded by “struggling” to provide Wagner with sufficient ammunition to the point where last week Prigozhin recorded an angry rant against the backdrop of a field full of his fallen soldiers, in which he screams “GIVE US THE FUCKING AMMO!” and repeatedly calls out Shoigu and Gerasimov by name.
He later threatened to withdraw his units from Bakhmut entirely, before being persuaded to stay by an equal and opposite threat of being charged with desertion.
Yet more stunning was a subsequent audio recording in which he appeared to have called Vladimir Putin a “grandad” and “a complete fuckhead”.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Konstantin Kisin to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.