Putin has a new problem in Ukraine: his mercenaries and soldiers hate each other

Wagner Group

Lately, the Wagner Group mercenaries have grabbed the headlines with their tactical successes in and around Bakhmut in Donbas.

Despite the slow and costly pace of progress, what the Wagner Group has achieved in Bakhmut marks the biggest Russian success in many months.

The Russian Defense Ministry is watching and is not happy with the achievements of the infamous private military company. The two entities have been locked in an internal dispute for months.

Recently Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the front.

“On March 4, 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry released a video of a rare visit to Ukraine by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. There is a real possibility that this was partly in response to recent images of Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin visiting his fighters on the front lines. Wagner is in a high-level dispute with the Russian Defense Ministry and Shoigu is likely to be sensitive to being compared to Prigozhin,” British Military Intelligence assessed in a recent war estimate.

In fact, their rivalry is becoming so intense that it is beginning to influence strategic decisions.

Prestige and survival through Vuhledar

In recent days, the Russian military has launched another wave of small-scale assaults against the Ukrainian positions in Vuhledar. However, the intensity of the offensive has diminished. Since November, the Russian army has repeatedly failed to capture the small mining town.

What might explain the Russian army’s insistence on attacking in and around Vuhledar is the internal rivalry that has been plaguing the Russian campaign in Ukraine.

“There is a real possibility that the Russian Defense Ministry has insisted on its drive to achieve success at Vuhledar, partly because it wants its own success to compete with Wagner’s achievements,” British Military Intelligence assessed in another estimate on the war.

Hard decisions ahead

The Russian military will have some decisions to make in the immediate future in Ukraine.

The Russian military will most likely see an operational breakthrough at Vuhledar as a way to counter the Wagner Group’s tactical successes at Bakhmut. But with limited resources, Russian commanders must decide between launching another offensive in Vuhledar – where they have repeatedly failed with heavy losses – or reinforcing the offensive effort in and around Bakhmut. However, opting for the latter would help the Wagner Group.

There is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin has something to say about what is happening in Ukraine. And for the Russian leader, the war is about more than capturing cities and gaining miles of territory. Indeed, for Putin, war is also a brutal struggle for control within Russia.

The Russian military could also reinforce the offensive in the northeast, around Kreminna and Svatove, which stalled for almost five months. But reinforcing that effort would not directly support the Kremlin’s strategic goals of capturing Donbas and creating a land bridge with Crimea.

The Russian campaign in Ukraine is not going well. And the fact that his most important fighting organizations are fighting each other is not helping Putin’s plans.