Russian generals forced to back Wagner Group over ‘internal power play’ for Bakhmut


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Ukraine: Drone captures destruction in Bakhmut

Russia’s costly and counterproductive attempts to capture the small eastern cities of Soledar and Bakhmut are based not on strategic gain but a symbolic “internal power play” between Russian commanders vying for Vladimir Putin’s attention, a military analyst has claimed. Professor Michael Clarke, a prominent commentator on the developing situation in Ukraine, told the mercenary outfit of Russian fighters known as the Wagner Group are “running across the strategy” of the Russian Armed Forces by focussing so stubbornly on the cities in Donetsk, forcing the top war generals to divert artillery to this “strategic blind alley” at the expense of soldiers elsewhere on the front line.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, who is nicknamed “Putin’s chef” due to his former role of supplying the Russian leader with his meals during official events, has made it his “personal objective” to take Bakhmut.

In the last month, he has directed his forces to Soledar six miles to the northeast, allegedly to take control of lucrative salt mines in the region and cut off supply lines into Bakhmut.

Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, said in an interview a fortnight ago that the number of soldiers killed in the two cities had become so high that Wagner Group forces were resorting to using piles of “bodies for cover” from local fire.

Reports of British aid workers missing in the crossfire, more than 500 civilians trapped in the Soledar city centre and both sides fighting for weeks “just for one house” demonstrate the degrees of devastation wrought on the region in recent weeks.

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 120 mm mortar towards Russian positions at the frontline near Bakhmut

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 120 mm mortar towards Russian positions at the frontline near Bakhmut (Image: AP )

Yevgeny Prigozhin and Sergey Surovikin

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been critical of former Russian war chief Sergey Surovikin (Image: GETTY )

Yet the strategic importance of the two cities is virtually non-existent. The capture of Bakhmut could precipitate an advance on the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk further west, which would allow the Russians to “get the rest of the Donbas”, Professor Clarke suggested, but that would not be possible until spring, when the next wave of Russian mobilised troops arrive at the front.

And while the Wagner Group have fought belligerently for Bakhmut, unable to make any real territorial gains but nonetheless unrelenting in their fighting, Ukraine have been turning Kramatorsk and Slovyansk into “fortresses”.

So why has the Wagner Group, under Prigozhin’s leadership, been so unrelenting in its pursuit of Bakhmut and Soledar to the northeast?

“He is trying to make the point to the Kremlin that he is the only general [the Russians] have got that can take territory,” said Professor Clarke.

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Soledar has been destoryed by Wagner Group

Soledar has been destoryed by Wagner Group forces unabatedly fighting there (Image: GETTY )

“Clearly this is all part of a sort of internal power play. Prigozhin and [Ramzan] Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, are playing their own games, trying to get close to Putin as the only commanders who can really deliver on the battlefield. Bakhmut has taken symbolic significance for that reason.”

But, Professor Clarke added, the Wagner Group’s stubbornness “is diminishing the strategic coherence of the Russian Armed Forces”.

He said: “The Wagner Group is certainly pulling in a lot of artillery that would otherwise be used elsewhere.

“I don’t believe that (former chief) General Sergey Surovikin really believes that Soledar is worth a lot of artillery but given that Wagner has now got their necks stuck out, the Russian generals can’t really allow it to be chopped off. So, they are having to back it up with some of their infrastructure.”

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Ukrainian servicemen administer first aid to a wounded soldier in a shelter in Soledar

Ukrainian servicemen administer first aid to a wounded soldier in a shelter in Soledar (Image: AP )

While Professor Clarke was speaking to the on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin announced that Surovikin had been demoted to deputy chief of the Armed Forces in Ukraine, just three months after his appointment to the role on October 10.

Prigozhin, looking to cement his influence in Russia and with Putin, had repeatedly “allowed his Wagner group fighters to attack the major military organisations within the Russian Army” while they fought for Bakhmut.

Concurrently, he had refused to help the Russian forces struggling further northeast in the city of Kreminna, which looks likely to be reclaimed by Ukraine in the near future and has undoubted strategic value, since it acts as a gateway into the occupied Luhansk region.

“Prigozhin is laying out his stall to oppose Surovikin,” Professor Clarke suggested. Minutes later, the mercenary leader appeared to get what he wanted.

It came at the expense of hundreds of soldiers in Soledar and Bakhmut, the life of one British aid volunteer, possibly thousands of Russian troops elsewhere on the frontline and the ability of the Russian generals to carry out a coherent military strategy, but the “internal power play” was successful.

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