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Kremlin unlikely to remove Prigozhin while Wagner fights in Ukraine – ISW

Kremlin unlikely to remove Prigozhin while Wagner fights in Ukraine – ISW

The latest report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggests that the Kremlin is unlikely to remove Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner Group, despite allegations of him offering to disclose Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence. This report closely follows leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post, which pointed to Prigozhin’s attempts to broker a deal with the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR).

According to The Washington Post, Prigozhin allegedly offered information about Russian troop locations to GUR in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut. This proposition, however, was reportedly rejected by GUR officials who did not trust Prigozhin. Furthermore, documents indicate that Kyiv suspects the Kremlin might be aware of these exchanges. Interestingly, The Washington Post also reported that Prigozhin urged Ukrainian officials to attack Russian forces and exposed issues regarding the morale and ammunition stocks of the Russian troops.

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, was asked about these interactions in an interview published by The Washington Post on 13 May 2023, but he did not confirm any contacts with Prigozhin.

These allegations have sparked mixed responses within Russia. Prigozhin initially responded sarcastically to the reports, stating that Wagner “has nothing to hide from foreign special services.” He later accused The Washington Post of disseminating fake information. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations, referring to them as “yet another hoax.”

The ISW report highlights that Prigozhin’s supposed outreach to Ukrainian intelligence seems more related to his ongoing feud with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) than a direct challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Prigozhin is competing with the Russian MoD for Putin’s favor but had unintentionally alarmed Putin with his military-political ambitions,” ISW assessed in March 2023.

Despite these allegations, the ISW suggests it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will immediately remove Prigozhin. Russian officials reportedly threatened Prigozhin with treason if he acted on his attempt to blackmail the MoD by threatening to withdraw from Bakhmut. Unnamed Kremlin sources have revealed that an information operation to publicly discredit Prigozhin is underway. However, as Prigozhin commands the Wagner forces in Donbas, his removal could disrupt the Russian lines in Bakhmut, a risk Putin is seemingly unlikely to take.

Another significant point highlighted in the ISW report is the difficulty the Kremlin faces in publicly removing and replacing Prigozhin. As the de facto head of Wagner, an independent company, Prigozhin holds no official government position, making his removal complex. Ironically, the Kremlin, under Putin, has been keen to maintain a formal distance from the mercenary group. If they were to remove Prigozhin from his role, it would paradoxically necessitate the Kremlin to assert direct control over the Wagner group – an action contrary to their current stance.

The key takeaways from the ISW report are as follows:

  • Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin offered to disclose the locations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian officials acknowledged limited Ukrainian battlefield successes during recent localized counterattacks in and around Bakhmut.
  • Russian milbloggers uniformly attacked a proposal for “military censorship,” further indicating that the community is highly motivated to defend its privileged position within the Russian information space.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that it intercepted a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile for the first time on May 15.
  • The Kremlin has reportedly banned high-ranking officials from resigning during the war in Ukraine, likely in an attempt to maintain stability within domestic security organs, government bodies, and the Russian military command.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on May 14 and 15 confirming the provision of more Western military aid.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces captured Masyutivka, Kharkiv Oblast and established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Oskil River, but ISW has observed no visual confirmation of these claims.
  • Russian forces continued to launch ground assaults in and around Bakhmut and conducted limited offensive operations near Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that approximately 152,000 Russian military personnel in southern Ukraine continue defensive efforts ahead of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to take advantage of migrant labor and incentivize foreigners into contract military service.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to set conditions to forcibly relocate Ukrainians from occupied territories to Russia.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko received a briefing from Belarusian generals on May 15 following recent speculation about his possible illness or death.
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