May 7, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russian army to resume arms supply to Wagner mercenaries

Institute for the Study of War

May 7, 2023

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov may have compelled the Russian theater commander in Ukraine, Army General Valery Gerasimov, to resume artillery ammunition distribution to the Wagner forces in Bakhmut despite Gerasimov’s desired de-prioritization of that effort. Prigozhin announced on May 7 that he had obtained a document from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) that promised to supply Wagner forces with the ammunition and weapons necessary to maintain offensive operations in Bakhmut. Prigozhin has not published the official document and ISW cannot verify Prigozhin’s claims at this time. The Russian MoD likely has not fundamentally changed its intention of deprioritizing offensive operations and conserving munitions across the theater, as ISW has recently assessed. Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely effectively blackmailed the Russian MoD into allocating resources to Wagner forces in Bakhmut by threatening to pull Kadyrov’s Chechen forces from other parts of the theater to relieve Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Prigozhin also claimed that the MoD gave Wagner complete freedom of operations in Bakhmut and appointed Army General Sergey Surovikin as an intermediary between the MoD and Wagner, actions that would indicate that Gerasimov and possibly Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu lack the ability to command Prigozhin and Kadyrov as subordinates but must instead negotiate with them as peers. This assessment assumes that Prigozhin’s claims that the MoD was withholding shells but has now agreed to supply them are true—the MoD has made no official statements regarding those claims—and Ukrainian officials report that they have not observed a decline in Wagner shelling during this period (see below).

Kadyrov’s threats to transfer his forces to Bakhmut may have blackmailed the Russian military command into allocating ammunition to Wagner mercenaries. Kadyrov published a letter on May 6 asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to order Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Director of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvadia) Viktor Zolotov to authorize the transfer of Chechen “Akhmat” units from “other directions” to assume Wagner’s positions in the Bakhmut direction. Kadyrov’s letter to Putin bypassed the Russian chain of command, and the withdrawal of Chechen forces from other parts of the theater likely posed a risk to Russian defensive lines, a risk that Gerasimov and Shoigu, or Putin, appear to have been unwilling to take. ISW previously observed Akhmat units operating in the Bilohorivka area on the Svatove-Kreminna line and in Zaporizhia Oblast, and their withdrawal from those positions might undermine Russia’s defensive preparations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives. Shoigu and Gerasimov, who have been consistently loyal to Putin’s orders, may alternatively have decided to allocate ammunition to Wagner at Putin’s direction. Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s apparently successful joint blackmail efforts further indicate that Gerasimov does not actually control all the Russian forces in Ukraine, despite being the nominal theater commander. Gerasimov likely attempted to assume control over all Russian irregular forces over the winter of 2023 but had failed in that endeavor even before losing favor with Putin in the spring.

Kadyrov likely supported Wagner’s blackmail efforts against the Russian military command in order to reestablish his position within the circle of power in the Kremlin. Kadyrov had previously held an influential position within the Putin’s close circle in until apparently losing favor recently, likely because his forces played a limited role in active combat operations in Ukraine throughout late fall of 2022 and winter of 2023. Putin belittled Kadyrov during their meeting on March 13 where Kadyrov appeared visibly nervous when reporting on the Chechen fighters’ role in Ukraine. Kadyrov likely saw Prigozhin’s threats to withdraw from Bakhmut as an opportunity to play up the effectiveness of his forces against the backdrop of Gerasimov‘s and Shoigu’s failures to deliver decisive victories during the winter-spring offensive.

Gerasimov’s apparent need to negotiate with subordinate commanders and those commanders’ ability to force his hand suggests that chain of command problems are significantly impacting the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations. The position of overall theater commander should in principle allow Gerasimov to command any Russian unit or ground forces commander in Ukraine, even those in charge of irregular formations such as Wagner and Akhmat. Prigozhin and Kadyrov appear to be able to largely make independent decisions concerning their forces, however, a phenomenon that appears to have become more pronounced the longer these forces have had de facto control over certain sectors of the frontline. Wagner and the Russian MoD appeared to have recently reached an agreement about the delineation of responsibilities between conventional and irregular forces. The Russian military command deployed Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) to defend the flanks around Bakhmut around when Wagner began advancing in the city itself, for example. ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command had likely recently decided to reprioritize efforts and resource allocation to prepare to receive potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations but did not set conditions to appease Prigozhin or offset Wagner’s likely degradation in the Bakhmut area. The subsequent upheaval over the de-prioritization of Bakhmut and the Russian military command’s reversal on supplying Wagner is likely to undermine this theater-wide effort.

These events raise questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign. The Russian military command appears to be increasingly delegating responsibilities for different sectors of the front in Ukraine to various Russian commanders while the power of the theater commander continues to wane. Gerasimov’s degraded abilities to control his commanders will likely further limit the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent operations involving different areas of responsibility. ISW has previously assessed that factional dynamics within the Russian military are shaping decision making to an unusual degree, and the increasing erosion of the Russian chain of command is likely caught in a self-reinforcing feedback loop with the Russian military’s growing factionalism. ISW assesses that Putin is unlikely to remove Gerasimov as overall theater commander for reputational reasons, and therefore Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s public undermining of Gerasimov may have lasting impacts on the power of the overall theater commander’s position. Putin may seek to reward commanders he favors with responsibility beyond their official positions instead of outright appointing them to a higher position. The Russian military is highly unlikely to solve these chain of command issues in the near term, and these problems will likely influence how Russian forces on different axes respond to potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s ability to significantly influence the Russian military command decisions relies on Putin’s willingness to appease them and his reliance on their forces, both of which will likely degrade after further blackmail efforts. Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov retain likely differing amounts of favor and personal contact with Putin despite their individual tensions with the Russian military command. The decision to blackmail and subsequently humiliate the Russian military command may have expended a fair amount of Prigozhin‘s and Kadyrov’s political capital to influence operational and strategic level military decision-making. Such high-profile blackmailing is likely not a feasible long-term strategy for Prigozhin and Kadyrov given their reliance on Putin’s favor to bend the MoD to their demands. Prigozhin has already lost favor with Putin in recent months, with recent events appearing to demonstrate that he needed Kadyrov’s own capital to successfully blackmail the Russian military command into additional ammunition provision. Putin notably avoids firing members of his inner circle, however, instead rotating them into and out of favor, influence, and resources. Prigozhin and Kadyrov are unlikely to generate such extreme effects again without damaging their relationships with Putin.

Prigozhin’s continued fight to complete the capture of Bakhmut contradicts his consistent narrative that capturing Bakhmut lacks strategic value. Prigozhin released a 41-point letter on May 6 (prior to his announcement about the provision of additional ammunition) criticizing the Russian MoD for intentionally refusing to support Wagner in Bakhmut. Prigozhin claimed that he and Surovikin organized “Operation Bakhmut Meatgrinder” in October 2022 to provoke Kyiv into throwing Ukrainian forces into Bakhmut en masse. Prigozhin reiterated that Wagner’s main task in Bakhmut has always been to exhaust Ukrainian forces in a meat-grinder, and not to capture the settlement. Prigozhin claimed that completing the capture of Bakhmut is not operationally significant, rejecting Shoigu’s March 7 claim that taking Bakhmut would open the way for further Russian offensive efforts in Donbas, a narrative that Prigozhin has consistently maintained since November 2022. Prigozhin’s long-standing claims that Bakhmut is not of strategic importance contradict his demands that the Russian MoD provide Wagner the necessary ammunition to allow it to complete the capture of Bakhmut, suggesting that Prigozhin continues to prioritize his own personal aims over those of the Russian military command and good of the overall Russian war effort.

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov may have compelled the Russian theater commander in Ukraine, Army General Valery Gerasimov, to resume artillery ammunition distribution to Wagner forces in Bakhmut despite Gerasimov’s desired de-prioritization of that effort.
  • Kadyrov’s threats to transfer his forces to Bakhmut may have blackmailed the Russian military command into allocating ammunition to Wagner mercenaries.
  • Kadyrov likely supported Wagner’s blackmail efforts against the Russian military command to reestablish his position within the circle of power of the Kremlin.
  • Gerasimov’s apparent need to negotiate with subordinate commanders and those commanders’ ability to force his hand suggests that chain of command problems are significantly impacting the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations.
  • These events raise questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign.
  • Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s ability to significantly influence Russian military command decisions relies on Putin’s willingness to appease them and his reliance on their forces – both of which will likely degrade after further blackmail efforts.
  • Prigozhin’s continued fight to complete the capture of Bakhmut contradicts his consistent narrative that capturing Bakhmut lacks strategic value.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made some territorial gains in Bakhmut as of May 7 and continued limited offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk front.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces launched up to 23 drones at Crimea on the night of May 6 to 7.
  • Russian federal subjects are continuing to recruit and form regional armed formations and volunteer battalions.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to plan and carry out forced evacuations from Zaporizhia Oblast.
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