Ukrainian forces are planning to “take advantage” of the public rift between the Wagner Group mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Moscow’s Defense Ministry to succeed in Bakhmut, according to a former Kremlin aide.
Writing on Telegram on Tuesday, former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Markov, said there were “two versions” of events to explain why Kyiv was sending reinforcements into the contested eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Months of heavy fighting and bombardment have decimated the Donetsk city, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had previously called a “fortress.” The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces may be starting a “limited tactical withdrawal” from the embattled settlement, but Kyiv had yet to confirm this.
On Monday, Zelensky said there is “no part of Ukraine” that can be “abandoned,” adding the top military officials will “find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut.”
Markov, writing on social media on Tuesday, said the decision to send reinforcements to the ruined city could be down to Kyiv “planning a big counterattack in Bakhmut.”
They could target the flanks of the Wagner Group of mercenary fighters, “and take advantage of the bad relations between the Russian Defense Ministry and the Wagner leadership,” Markov argued. They could then “go on the offensive,” he added.
Wagner Group fighters, under Prigozhin’s leadership, have played a key role in fighting in Bakhmut alongside Russia’s conventional military. But the Russian billionaire is also an outspoken critic of the Russian Defense Ministry and the armed forces.
Prigozhin has previously accused the Defense Ministry and the chief of Russia’s general staff of “high treason” for denying Wagner fighters ammunition and supplies. The ministry, without specifying the Wagner Group, then said “all the statements supposedly made on behalf of assault units about the lack of ammunition are completely untrue.”
Previous assessments have suggested the Russian authorities are attempting to “sideline” the oligarch and his mercenary fighters. But Wagner fighters have nonetheless played a key role in Russian efforts to capture Bakhmut.
Markov did not clarify how he believes Ukraine could benefit from the high-profile rift in the battle for Bakhmut, and also argued that reinforcements could allow Ukraine to make an “organized exit” from the city.
“Elite elements” of the Wagner Group and Russian airborne units have joined the fray in Bakhmut, the Institute for the Study of War said on Monday. Wagner has “committed its very best soldiers to the fight,” which is likely to “severely degrade” the most effective parts of the mercenary force, the think tank added.
“I am knocking on all doors, sounding the alarm with ammunition and reinforcements, and also so that we cover our flanks,” Prigozhin said in a statement on Monday.
Also on Monday, an anonymous NATO military official told CNN that Russian forces have lost at least five fighters for every one Ukrainian soldier killed in Bakhmut. On Tuesday, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said Russian forces continued to “storm the city of Bakhmut and its surroundings,” despite sustaining “significant losses.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries for comment.