The Wagner Group is preparing to refocus its efforts in Africa and away from Ukraine amid a long-running dispute with Moscow, it has been reported.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group, has repeatedly accused Russia’s defence ministry of stymying his supply of ammunition and manpower. Western analysts believe Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, is trying to stifle Prigozhin’s growing political influence.
Wagner mercenaries have spearheaded Moscow‘s eight-month attempt to capture the besieged city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin’s private military has lost tens of thousands of men, mostly former convicts recruited out of Russian prisons, during the assault – the longest and costliest battle of the war.
Marred by the failure to capture Bakhmut, Prigozhin is planning to shift focus back to Africa, the Bloomberg news agency reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
The suggestion will likely prompt concerns in Moscow after a top Ukrainian general said Kyiv’s armed forces were ready to launch a counter-offensive on Bakhmut.
“The attacker has not lost hope of taking Bakhmut at all costs, despite the losses of men and equipment, very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said.
Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” for the catering contracts he won from the Kremlin leader, admitted earlier this month his Wagner forces would have to “reset and cut down its size” after the battle of the Donetsk region city.
Western officials have corroborated reports that the mercenary group has been forced to slow down after deliveries of artillery by Russia’s MoD were halted and future prison recruitment drives blocked.
A recruitment notice posted earlier this week invited applicants to come forward for a six-month stint in Ukraine or nine to 14 months in Africa. Those wanting to service in African countries, where Wagner has contracts to protect mines and offer governments security services, were told they would be placed on reserve.
In response to the press reports, Prigozhin denied Wagner was preparing a withdrawal from Ukraine.
“It seems that Bloomberg knows better than we do what we are going to do,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “As long as our country needs us, we will remain fighting in Ukraine.”
Lull in Bakhmut fighting
British military intelligence has revealed a recent lull in the fighting around Bakhmut, which could be fuelled by Wagner’s lack of firepower. The mercenary group recruited up to 40,000 convicts, half of whom have been killed or wounded in the attempt to capture the salt-mining town.
Many of them, former murderers, rapists and thieves, were killed in frontal, human wave attacks, reminiscent of tactics from the First World War.
Prigozhin last week announced a new recruitment drive in sports centres and martial arts clubs across 42 Russian cities. But it is unclear how successful he will be in attracting new recruits given the publicised casualty rate of Wagner’s troops.
It is likely the Russian defence ministry will seek to blame Prigozhin personally for an apparent slow down in Moscow’s assault on Bakhmut.
In a recent report, the US-based Institute for the Study of War wrote that Shoigu was “likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin”.
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