April 17, 2023
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. Wagner forces appear to be receiving reinforcements, ammunition, and political recognition – which is a stark deviation from the Kremlin’s previous efforts to expend Wagner forces and Prigozhin in Bakhmut since at least January 2023. Wagner-affiliated sources announced on April 17 that Wagner is training up to three motorized rifle brigades of mobilized personnel to reinforce Wagner‘s flanks in Bakhmut. Prigozhin also confirmed that Russian airborne forces (VDV) are operating alongside Wagner and indicated that Wagner is actively receiving artillery shells. Prigozhin advocated for Wagner to receive more artillery shells, which indicates that Prigozhin has reestablished his supply of ammunition from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). The Russian State Duma will also consider amendments to the Russian law on veterans’ rights to grant veteran status to private military companies (PMCs) and volunteers. Prigozhin had been routinely advocating for Wagner personnel to be recognized as participants of the ”special military operation” in Ukraine, and the adoption of this bill would signify that Prigozhin’s position in the Kremlin inner circle has improved.
The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition. The New York Times, citing leaked Pentagon documents, reported that Putin personally attempted to resolve the feud between Wagner and the Russian MoD by holding a meeting between Shoigu and Prigozhin on February 22. Putin could be turning back to Prigozhin after experiencing another disappointment with Russian conventional forces, which did not capture Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts frontlines before the April 1 date that Putin had reportedly set for them. Putin is reportedly once again reappointing select Wagner-affiliated commanders such as VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, which if true, suggests that he is prioritizing a decisive victory at least in Bakhmut in the near term. Putin likely needs an immediate victory in Bakhmut ahead of Victory Day on May 9 or the rumored ”Direct Line” press conference he is preparing to hold in June to assert his authority among domestic audiences.
Putin’s improving relations with Wagner may also be a symptom of his hesitance to increase mobilization and signal a return to crypto mobilization. Putin increased the annual conscription quota from 134,000 conscripts to 147,000 men for the spring 2023 cycle, and likely is experiencing shortages of trainers to prepare conscripts, remaining mobilized personnel, and volunteers. The Kremlin may be hoping to use Wagner trainers to prepare its mobilized forces. ISW had previously reported that the Kremlin outsourced recruitment of personnel to nationalist groups and is currently carrying out large-scale volunteer recruitment campaigns. Wagner is currently recruiting across Russia, and it is possible that the Kremlin may still see Wagner as a feasible source of combat power.
An interview with two former Wagner Group fighters on their treatment of Ukrainian children and other civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) further highlights how Wagner has institutionalized systematic brutality as part of its fundamental modus operandi. Russian human rights organization Gulagu.net released a video interview on April 17 with two former convicts who finished their contracts with Wagner and returned to Russia. One Wagner fighter, Azamat Yaldarov, admitted that Prigozhin ordered his unit to kill children while taking control of Soledar, and that he buried 18 children that he killed in Krasnodar Krai and Saratov and Kirov oblasts. Yaldarov emphasized that Prigozhin gave the order for Wagner fighters to ”eliminate” everyone in Soledar, and that Yaldarov was specifically ordered to kill children. Another Wagner fighter and commander of a reconnaissance unit, Aleksey Savich, told the interviewer that he fired on his own men for disobedience and that he personally witnessed the executions of 80 Wagner fighters for refusing to follow orders. Savich claimed that Wagner command gave the order to kill all civilians in Bakhmut aged 15 and older, and that his unit killed 23 civilians, 10 of whom were unarmed teenagers. Savich recounted other instances from operations in Bakhmut and Soledar in which he murdered children as young as five years old and other civilians. Savich also claimed that Prigozhin has a personal preference for recording videos of the execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The extremely graphic atrocities described by Yaldarov and Savich underscore a slate of recent reports of Wagner’s systematic use of brutality as a method of waging war. Prigozhin and Wagner’s command may actively encourage active engagement in atrocities in an attempt to build social cohesion and reputation within Wagner units. This type of engrained violence is likely to have escalating domestic impacts on Russian domestic society, especially as Wagner fighters complete their contracts and return to their homes. Russian society will have to increasingly work to handle the normalized brutality committed by its forces as they reintegrate into the domestic sphere, which will likely have generational domestic societal ramifications.
The Gulagu.net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization. Yaldarov claimed that he was the commander of Wagner’s 5th Assault Detachment and that he trained with a special unit that specifically taught him to kill. Yaldarov stated that the higher Wagner command gave his unit the order to place a flag on likely the Bakhmut administrative building and that he was not allowed to leave Bakhmut until after its capture. Considering the fact that Yaldarov gave the interview from his home in Russia because he was released from his contract, his anecdote about the administrative building may suggest that Wagner considered the capture of the administrative building and the central Bakhmut area to be threshold for announcing the capture of the city. The apparent return of Putin’s favor to Prigozhin may have resulted in part from Prigozhin’s ability to claim the capture of Bakhmut — his objective — while the Russian MoD’s conventional forces failed to achieve any of their objectives. Yaldarov’s account of Prigozhin’s orders for Wagner troops to massacre civilians and everyone they came across in Soledar in early January additionally indicates that Prigozhin pushed for the quick capture of the settlement and ordered his fighters to take it essentially at any cost. Both Yaldarov and Savich emphasize the way that the Wagner command demands brutal treatment of Wagner dissenters within the ranks and the operational reliance on attritional assaults carried out by convict recruits.
The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza’s criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine. The 25-year sentence is the longest and harshest for an opposition activist to date. Kara-Murza’s sentencing comes as the Kremlin has continued to intensify domestic repression of dissenting voices through escalated legislative manipulations. The Russian State Duma previously approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 13 that will introduce life sentences for high treason and increase prison sentences for terrorist activity. Kara-Murza’s high-profile case and sentencing are emblematic of the wider trend in Russia towards total and codified authoritarianism.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Li stated that he had arrived in Moscow to implement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agreement with Putin from late March and claimed that Russian-Chinese relations “have already entered a new era.” Li noted that China is prepared to work with Russia to “strengthen strategic communication between the two militaries, strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, and make new contributions to safeguarding regional and global security for peace.” Official Russian and Chinese readouts did not include any mentions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s intent to promote peace talks in Ukraine and continuation of cooperation which Xi and Putin agreed upon previously. ISW previously assessed that Putin was unable to secure a no-limits bilateral partnership with China during Xi’s visit to Moscow, and it is likely that the meeting between Li and Putin did not further expand the scope of Russian-Chinese cooperation.
Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit. Putin stated that the Russian military is prioritizing the war in Ukraine but continues to develop the Russian Pacific Fleet during his meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on April 17. Shoigu stated that recent Russian combat readiness drills involved 25,000 military personnel, 167 warships and support vessels, and 89 planes and helicopters. Shoigu stated that Russian forces are currently conducting maneuver exercises and are moving to the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk. Shoigu claimed that the final drills will begin on April 18, a day before Li’s departure from Russia. ISW assessed on April 14 that the Russian Pacific Fleet‘s combat readiness checks are likely meant to signal to China that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific, especially ahead of the G7 meeting in Japan between May 19 and May 21.
Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.” The “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto on April 17 on its newly created Telegram channel, which emphasizes protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin instead of efforts to win the war in Ukraine. The manifesto claims that unspecified actors who remain in power in Russia have transferred their money and allegiance to the West and may be preparing for a coup and the ”dismemberment” of the Russia Federation. The manifesto likens the Kremlin‘s pro-war and anti-war factions to the fight between the Reds and Whites in the Russian Civil War following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The manifesto also claims that Russia is currently fighting the war in a mediocre way and is unable to defeat Ukraine in its current state. ISW previously assessed that Girkin and the “Club of Angry Patriots” may be attempting to advance the political goals of unnamed figures in Russian power structures who want to influence Putin’s decision making through public discourse.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition.
- An interview with two former Wagner Group fighters on their treatment of Ukrainian children and other civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) further highlights how Wagner has institutionalized systematic brutality as part of its fundamental modus operandi.
- The Gulagu.net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization.
- The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza’s criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.
- Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit.
- Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.”
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
- Russian forces have made further gains in Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin’s transition to electronic summonses distribution is continuing to complicate Russian conscription procedures.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to discuss the provision of Russian passports in occupied areas of Ukraine.