May 5, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  Mercenary leader Prigozhin announces possible pullback from Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

May 5, 2023

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to have deprioritized the Bakhmut offensive in favor of preparing to defend against an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, putting the Wagner Group and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in a potentially difficult position. Prigozhin released a series of videos on May 4 and 5 announcing that Wagner will withdraw from Bakhmut on May 10 unless Wagner receives necessary supplies and launched particularly acerbic and emotional attacks against Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and the Russian MoD establishment writ large.[1] Prigozhin’s palpable desperation in the videos, one of which shows the corpses of recently deceased Wagner fighters, marks a significant rhetorical inflection in his continued pleas for increased Russian MoD support for Wagner in Bakhmut. His visible and visceral anger suggests that the Russian MoD has likely deprioritized Bakhmut and shifted operational focus elsewhere in the theater in ways that may seriously compromise Wagner’s ability to operate effectively. Wagner has not ceased efforts to completely capture Bakhmut despite reduced access to ammunition and other necessary supplies, however. Prigozhin has shown no willingness to switch to the defensive within the city.

Wagner’s continued persistence within Bakhmut is incongruent with the overall slow-down in the pace of Russian offensive operations elsewhere in Ukraine as conventional Russian forces appear to be largely shifting focus to prepare to receive the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.[2] Aside from very limited and localized attacks in the Kreminna area and near Donetsk City, Russian forces have largely ceased offensive operations throughout the theater, likely signifying a transition to the defensive.[3] It would be an operationally sound decision for the Russian MoD to begin withholding and stockpiling ammunition and supplies in order to prepare for any Ukrainian counteroffensive actions, and Prigozhin’s desperate statements indicate that the Russian MoD is likely doing so. ISW has recently reported that Prigozhin began appealing to the Russian MoD to provide Wagner with necessary ammunition once again after a brief period during which it seemed that relations between Prigozhin and Russian military leadership had improved.[4] Prigozhin’s renewed anger reached its peak in the May 4 video of Prigozhin essentially screaming at Gerasimov and Shoigu and accusing them of the deaths of Wagner fighters.[5]

The losses suffered by Wagner in Bakhmut, alongside the likely de-prioritization of the Bakhmut effort by the Russian MoD, may leave Prigozhin and Wagner in a particularly bad spot. It is not immediately clear whether Prigozhin actually intends to withdraw from Bakhmut on May 10 or whether he made the announcement in a last-ditch attempt to secure MoD support. If Wagner does withdraw, then it will likely need Russian MoD equipment to protect and facilitate the retrograde. The Russian military lacks the reserves needed to man positions Wagner might abandon in Bakhmut, moreover. The massive losses suffered by Wagner in Bakhmut for the sake of tactical gains, as well as the overall shift of the Russian military towards a more cautious posture preparing for defensive operations, appears to be offering Ukrainian forces opportunities for fruitful counterattacks in various areas of the front. Ukrainian forces appear to be seizing some of these opportunities, as noted below, but ISW does not assess that these counterattacks are necessarily part of the anticipated counteroffensive. NB: ISW uses the term “counterattack” to describe tactical actions by Ukrainian forces to make limited gains in local areas. It uses the term “counteroffensive” to describe operational-level undertakings composed of many distinct tactical actions intended to achieve operationally or strategically significant gains. ISW has so far observed reporting only of Ukrainian counterattacks.

Recently dismissed former Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev is reportedly serving as deputy commander of the Wagner Group, likely as part of Wagner’s campaign to retain access to Russian military supplies. A Wagner-affiliated Russian milblogger published footage on May 4 and 5 purporting to show Mizintsev acting as Wagner deputy commander and discussing logistical and tactical issues with Wagner fighters in the Bakhmut area.[6] Prigozhin publicly offered the command position to Mizintsev following his dismissal on April 27, and Prigozhin claimed on May 5 that Mizintsev in his capacity as head of logistics supplied Wagner with low quality ammunition.[7] Prigozhin may have appointed Mizintsev as Wagner deputy commander in an effort to leverage Mizintsev‘s understanding of and relationships within the Russian military’s logistics apparatus to retain access to ammunition and supplies amid an apparent reprioritization away from Wagner’s area of responsibility. Mizintsev was reportedly dismissed after Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Mikhail Teplinsky, a likely anti-Gerasimov figure, conducted readiness checks that revealed that the Russian Northern Fleet lacked supplies, possibly indicating that Mizintsev fell out of favor with both factions within the MoD and joined Wagner to retain a command role in Ukraine.[8] The changes likely occurring within the Russian military’s logistics apparatus associated with the reprioritization of supplies for defensive operations will likely impede Mizintsev‘s presumed efforts to retain Wagner’s access to supplies.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered newly-appointed Deputy Minister for Logistics Alexei Kuzmenkov to control the supply of weapons and equipment to Russian forces in Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on May 5 that Shoigu gave Kuzmenkov the order during an inspection of forces and military equipment in the Southern Military District.[9] The Russian MoD reported that Kuzmenkov presented Shoigu with new tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and other equipment and claimed that Russian military-industrial enterprises have repaired equipment at a rate faster than that of equipment losses. Shoigu likely met with Kuzmenkov to accelerate the conservation and reprioritization of logistics and sustainment processes ahead of expected upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Shoigu’s meeting with the new head for logistics amid Wagner’s attempt to retain access to the Russian military’s logistics apparatus further suggests that Wagner will struggle to maintain its current level of provisions from the MoD.

Russian occupation authorities announced the forced removal of 70,000 civilians in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to areas deeper in the Russian-occupied rear under the guise of evacuations. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation Head Yevgeny Balitsky and Deputy Head Andriy Kozenko announced on May 5 that Russian authorities will conduct a partial evacuation of 70,000 Ukrainian civilians of vulnerable populations, including families with children, the disabled, and the elderly, from 18 settlements along the southern bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir and along Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) roughly 20-40 kilometers from the front line.[10] Kozenko claimed that authorities have already begun evacuating civilians from the Polohy Raion to Berdyansk.[11] The locations of these settlements so far from the current front lines suggest that Russian forces plan to conduct a controlled, fighting withdrawal from their current positions to a prepared line of defense rather than trying to hold the current line of contact in the event of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kherson Oblast occupation authorities had similarly used the guise of evacuation to justify the forced relocation of Ukrainians from the frontlines in Kherson Oblast during Ukraine’s counteroffensive in October and November 2022, citing threats of Ukrainian strikes and frontline hostilities.[12] These Russian preparations do not necessarily indicate that Ukrainian forces will attack in or prioritize this area. Russian and occupation authorities will likely capitalize on growing Russian fear over a prospective Ukrainian counteroffensive to justify further mass relocations of Ukrainian civilians. 

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) proposed a draft bill aimed at appealing to growing anti-migrant sentiments in Russia and supporting the Russian military’s efforts to recruit migrants. The MVD submitted a draft bill on May 5 that would allow employers to deprive migrant employees of their work permits and create expanded administrative supervision over the residence of foreign citizens in Russia.[13] The draft bill states that the administrative supervision regime is aimed at establishing the whereabouts of foreign citizens illegally staying in Russia, although a Russian source claimed that the measure will allow Russian officials and police to freely enter the homes of migrants.[14] The MVD added an explanatory note to the bill in which it argued that ”illegal migration is closely related to such negative phenomena as terrorism, extremism, human trafficking, [and] drug trafficking.”[15] The reasoning offered for the bill is similar to Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin’s recent accusation that migrants destabilize Russia by importing terrorism and extremist ideologies.[16] The bill is reflective of growing domestic ramifications from the wide acceptance of the Kremlin’s ”Russification” ideology, which ISW previously assessed is increasingly manifesting itself in how Russian authorities and ultranationalists negatively portray ethnic minorities and migrants in Russia.[17] Russian officials also disproportionally focus recruitment efforts on migrant communities, and the bill could set conditions for Russian officials to leverage jeopardized migration statuses to coerce migrants into signing contracts with the Russian military.[18]

Russian Human Rights Council head Valery Fadeev reportedly stated that Russian authorities should regulate Telegram channels similarly to how Russia censors state-controlled media. Kremlin newswire TASS reported on May 5 that Fadeev called for Russian authorities to “analyze the activities of Telegram channels” to consider introducing legislation to regulate Telegram.[19] Russian First Deputy Chairman of the Civic Chamber on Media and Mass Communication Alexander Malkevich supported the regulation of Telegram channels claiming that traditional forms of media and “new media” should be on an equal footing because ”new media” has “only rights and no obligations.” Fadeev’s support of Telegram censorship is also notable because prominent Russian milblogger Alexander Kots also serves on the Russian Human Rights Council. ISW has previously reported on efforts on the part of Russian authorities to stimulate self-censorship in the information space.[20]

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to have deprioritized the Bakhmut offensive in favor of preparing to defend against an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, putting the Wagner Group and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in a potentially difficult position.
  • Wagner’s continued persistence within Bakhmut is incongruent with the overall slow-down in the pace of Russian operations elsewhere in Ukraine as conventional Russian forces appear to largely be shifting focus to prepare to receive the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Recently dismissed former Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev is reportedly serving as deputy commander of the Wagner Group, likely as part of Wagner’s campaign to retain access to Russian military supplies.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered newly-appointed Deputy Minister for Logistics Alexei Kuzmenkov to control the supply of weapons and equipment to Russian forces in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities announced the forced removal of 70,000 civilians in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to areas deeper in the Russian-occupied rear under the guise of evacuations.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) proposed a draft bill aimed at appealing to growing anti-migrant sentiments in Russia and supporting the Russian military’s efforts to recruit migrants.
  • Russian Human Rights Council head Valery Fadeev reportedly stated that Russian authorities should regulate Telegram channels similarly to how Russia censors state-controlled media.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna and Avdiivka and made marginal gains within Bakhmut.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Bakhmut.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed it prevented a Ukrainian assassination attempt against an occupation deputy of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on May 5.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues his own personal force generation efforts aimed at securing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue measures to strengthen social control of occupied territories.
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