May 6, 2023
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov stated their intent on May 6 for Chechen “Akhmat” troops to replace Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut on May 10. Prigozhin published a letter to Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu on May 6 declaring that Wagner will hand over its positions to Akhmat units at exactly midnight on May 10, when Prigozhin claims Wagner will have entirely run out of combat potential. Prigozhin expressed his confidence that Akhmat forces can capture the remaining 2.5 square kilometers of Bakhmut that remain under Ukrainian control. Kadyrov responded to Prigozhin by stating he has addressed a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin signaling his readiness to take Bakhmut and claimed that Chechen units are already working on a strategy with the Russian MoD for the Chechens to take over Wagner‘s positions.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely aim to frame the Russian MoD and regular Russian troops as ineffective and set conditions to blame the MoD for any Russian setbacks in the Bakhmut area. Prigozhin’s decision to hand responsibility for Bakhmut over to the forces of a fellow silovik deliberately excludes the conventional Russian airborne (VDV) troops already operating on Wagner’s northern and southern flanks around Bakhmut, framing the battle of Bakhmut strictly as a Wagner – and now Akhmat – concern. This decision reflects Prigozhin’s ongoing distrust of the Russian military command, and postures himself as independent from the Russian military establishment and allows him to save face if Wagner forces cannot capture Bakhmut and avoiding a repeat of the capture of Soledar – where the Russian MoD took credit for what Prigozhin claimed was a Wagner success. Kadyrov, in turn, could benefit from the positive reputational effect of entering such a high-profile operation with the backing of Prigozhin’s personal notoriety. Kadyrov recently met with several high-ranking Russian officials in Russia, likely to ameliorate his own reputation within Russian political circles. The switch from Wagner to Akhmat troops may also set conditions to blame the Russian MoD for future failures down the line — if Akhmat forces experience similar difficulties to Wagner and are unable to completely capture Bakhmut, Prigozhin and Kadyrov may feasibly blame the MoD for failing to adequately support their efforts. Alternatively, if the Russian MoD prevents Akhmat forces from relieving Wagner (as it is unclear if Prigozhin and Kadyrov can execute this maneuver without any Russian MoD support as they claim), the two siloviki and their allies will likely brandish the hypothetical that if only the Russian MoD had supported the maneuver, Chechen forces would have captured Bakhmut quickly.
While the potential deployment of Akhmat troops to Bakhmut could increase Russian combat power to some degree, the claims made by Prigozhin and Kadyrov are greatly exaggerated. Akhmat forces have deployed throughout Ukraine, mostly in the Bilohorivka area in Luhansk Oblast and in scattered areas in the south, over the course of 2023 but have not been majorly committed to decisive offensive operations. The Chechen forces that would deploy to Bakhmut are therefore likely substantially fresher and less degraded than Wagner forces which have remained on the front for months. However, Kadyrov’s suggestion that Akhmat will be able to rapidly advance in and occupy Bakhmut in “a matter of hours” is typical Kadyrov braggadocio and ignores the tactical situation on the ground in Bakhmut. Additionally, Prigozhin’s suggestion that Wagner will lose its combat potential at exactly midnight on May 10 is a rhetorical point selected to avoid withdrawing before Victory Day on May 9 – fighting forces do not precipitously exhaust all their combat capabilities in one discrete instant.
The Russian MoD has yet to respond to Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s coordinated posturing about Bakhmut and may have been caught flatfooted by Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s statements. ISW assesses that the Russian military is likely reprioritizing logistics and sustainment processes to transition to defensive operations in most areas of the theater ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, and Prigozhin’s focus on Bakhmut may be at odds with changing Russian MoD priorities. Russian forces likely do not have reserves they could commit to Bakhmut should Wagner’s ability to sustain operations in the city completely collapse, as Prigozhin is claiming.The Russian MoD continues to claim that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are defending the flanks around Bakhmut, and ISW has not observed VDV elements directly contributing to Wagner’s offensive within the city itself. The Russian military likely intends for these VDV elements to stabilize the wider Bakhmut salient given Wagner’s increasingly degraded combat effectiveness in the area, and Russian forces are unlikely to commit these elements to a final phase of attritional fighting in Bakhmut ahead of expected Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. The capture of the last remaining section of Bakhmut offers no wider operational benefits and would only provide limited informational benefits for the Kremlin. The MoD’s silence is likely reflective of a conscious decision to not offset Wagner’s degradation or placate Prigozhin’s expected anger, although the lack of response is allowing Prigozhin more maneuver space to shape the overall reaction to the de-prioritization of the Bakhmut offensive.
At least one individual with claimed but unconfirmed affiliation to the Ukrainian government attempted to assassinate Russian “A Just Russia” State Duma party co-leader and prominent nationalist voice Zakhar Prilepin on May 6. The attackers targeted Prelipin with an improvised explosive device (IED) on or near Prilepin’s car in Pionerskoye, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, killing Prilepin’s driver and severely injuring Prilepin. The Russian Investigative Committee announced it is investigating the attack as a terrorist attack and stated Russian security forces arrested Oleksandr Permyakov, who Russian state-affiliated media claimed conducted the attack on the orders of Ukrainian Special Services (SBU). Russian news aggregator Channel 112 claimed that Russian authorities detained a second unspecified attacker in a nearby forest area, but Russian authorities have not corroborated this report. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Ukraine and the West of orchestrating the attack, though Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that it is too early to know the attackers and orchestrators. The Atesh Ukrainian-Tatar resistance movement claimed indirect responsibility for the attack, though Ukrainian and Russian officials have not corroborated this claim. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly fostered ties with ”A Just Russia” party leadership, though it is uncertain if the attack against Prilepin is related to Prigozhin.
Many prominent Russian nationalist information space voices expressed anger at another attack against a prominent pro-war voice in Russia itself and connected the attack to the assassinations of Darya Dugina and Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky). Many milbloggers blamed Ukraine and Western states for orchestrating the attack and called on Russia to increase law enforcement measures. Some milbloggers called on Russia to provide personal security for prominent milbloggers or to re-establish the Soviet-era SMERSH counterintelligence umbrella to combat enemy penetration attempts.
CNN reported that Russian electronic warfare (EW) jamming has limited the effectiveness of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes in recent months. CNN cited five US, UK, and Ukrainian sources as saying that US and Ukrainian forces have had to adapt workarounds to counter “evolving” Russian EW jamming efforts, and that Russian forces have subsequently developed countermeasures to those workarounds.US officials stated that destroying Russian EW systems is a high priority in maintaining the battlefield effectiveness of HIMARS. ISW is unable to confirm this report, but Russian forces retain at least some ability to adapt to battlefield conditions despite significant degradation.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov stated their intent on May 6 for Chechen “Akhmat” troops to replace Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut on May 10.
- Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely aim to frame the Russian MoD and regular Russian troops as ineffective and set conditions to blame the MoD for any Russian setbacks in the Bakhmut area.
- While the potential deployment of Akhmat troops to Bakhmut could increase Russian combat power to some degree, the claims made by Prigozhin and Kadyrov are greatly exaggerated.
- The Russian MoD has yet to respond to Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s coordinated posturing about Bakhmut and may have been caught flatfooted by Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s statements.
- At least one individual with claimed but unconfirmed affiliation to the Ukrainian government attempted to assassinate Russian “A Just Russia” State Duma party co-leader and prominent nationalist voice Zakhar Prilepin on May 6.
- CNN reported that Russian electronic warfare (EW) jamming has limited the effectiveness of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes in recent months.
- Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and in the Kreminna area.
- Russian forces continued to make marginal gains within Bakhmut and Ukrainian forces likely conducted a successful limited counterattack southwest of Avdiivka.
- Russian occupation officials claimed that Ukrainian forces targeted Crimea with Hrim-2 short-range ballistic missiles.
- Ukrainian sources reported that Russian authorities are continuing various measures to forcibly mobilize residents of occupied areas of Ukraine.
- Russian occupation officials continue to plan for mass forced evacuations in Zaporizhia Oblast.