With Bakhmut Likely To Fall, Bigger Battle Is Within Moscow

A victory in Ukraine led by the mercenaries of the Wagner group could upend Moscow’s power structure and under certain circumstances could even lead to chaos that leaves Russia resembling the country on the eve of the 1917 revolution.

Sergei Ilnitsky/pool via AP, file
The owner of a Russian private military company, Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, at Moscow, July 4, 2017. Sergei Ilnitsky/pool via AP, file

In the context of the Ukraine war, a Russian victory in the battle of Bakhmut could well be, as the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said Monday, merely “symbolic.” Yet it could become a watershed moment in battles inside Moscow. 

A Bakhmut victory led by the mercenaries of the Wagner group could upend Moscow’s power structure and under certain circumstances could even lead to chaos that leaves Russia resembling the country on the eve of the 1917 revolution that ended the tsarist rule and brought the Bolsheviks to power. 

Besieged for months and now almost completely surrounded, Bakhmut, or whatever is left of the small town in the east of Ukraine, seems about to fall at any moment despite President Zelensky’s last-minute call to defend it. If it does, Russia will have a victory to boast about after months of battlefield stalemate.

Yet, which Russia would do the boasting? 

A Bakhmut victory is bound to bolster the bragging rights of the owner of the mercenary, ragtag army known as Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. For months, the war profiteer has been taunting the Russian army chief, General Valery Gerasimov, and even more so the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, for their lack of progress in Ukraine.  

On Sunday, Mr. Prigozhin declared that a victory at Bakhmut would represent major war progress. At the same time, he accused his Kremlin rivals of knifing him in the back. Ammunition for his Bakhmut forces, though approved by the Kremlin weeks ago, has yet to arrive, Mr. Prigozhin wrote in a post Sunday. 

The reason could be “ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal,” the Wagner chief wrote. What if his Moscow enemies “want to set us up, saying that we are scoundrels, and that’s why they are not giving us ammunition, not giving us weapons, and not letting us replenish our personnel?” 

Meanwhile, Mr. Shoigu, who unlike Mr. Prigozhin rarely travels or is seen clad in battle gear, popped up on Monday at Mariupol, which Russia captured early in the war — one of its rare clear victories.  

The battle of images is not aimed at detractors of President Putin who oppose the Ukraine invasion or are taken aback by war atrocities. “The Russians are not complaining about war crimes, they’re complaining that Putin is losing the war,” a Russia watcher at the Foundation to Defend Democracies, Ivana Strander, tells the Sun. 

The lack of Russian war victories weakens Mr. Putin, who relies on an image of an all-powerful leader. At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin is attempting to show that his Wagner mercenaries are better equipped to win than the army led by the president’s top generals.  

To beef up recruitment, Mr. Prigozhin emulated a 1967 war movie, “The Dirty Dozen,” which depicted a group of hardened deathrow inmates in a suicidal raid of a Nazi headquarters. In Wagner’s case, though, the prisoners have proved much less effective than, and not nearly as heroic as, the fictional 12 men under the command of Lee Marvin’s Major John Reisman. 

Ill-equipped, Mr. Prigozhin’s inmates are being thrown into battle after receiving scant training. “There is an endless supply of prisoners,” a columnist for the Kyiv Post, Jason Smart, says. “But do you think anyone in Moscow cares if a bunch of rapists and killers come back home? Nobody wants them back in the population.”

Regardless, a Wagner victory at Bakhmut could prove a double-edged sword for Mr. Putin. “Putin is weak,” Mr. Smart tells the Sun. “Prigozhin could say, ‘Why do I need Putin anymore? Why should I be second best when I could take it all?’ We could very well wake up tomorrow to a headline that would say Putin is gone.” 

Nor is the Wagner group alone. There are dozens of private armies that could well lead to a major all-against-all fight for control of Russia’s natural resources, not to mention its nuclear arsenal. Members of the regular army could join, too.

Meanwhile Mr. Putin’s best allies, a ruthless Chechen militia, may not be there to defend him in his time of need. Their leader, the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, has called for using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Yet now he is reportedly ill with a disease that his allies say was caused by poisoning. 

The battle over Bakhmut “is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Mr. Austin said Monday while visiting Amman, Jordan. It “won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”  

Yet, “this war is not only on Ukraine. It has huge implications for Russia,” Ms. Strander says. As a March 2024 presidential election nears, she says, Mr. Prigozhin “is sending signals to the Russian people that Putin is weak. A civil war could break out even before the election.”  


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