Leaked details of Wagner boss Prigozhin's dealings suggest he was ready to throw Russia's war 'under the bus' just to win a battle, Russia expert says

  • The Wagner Group has frequently feuded with Russia's military leadership over its war in Ukraine.

  • A new report suggests the group leader took it farther than previously known, offering to give Ukraine Russian troop locations.

  • The report indicates that Yevgeny Prigozhin was ready to derail Russia's war for his own aims, an expert told Insider.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the paramilitary Wagner Group, offered to sell Ukraine the positions of Russian troops in an attempt to take the pressure off his mercenaries in a key battle, a new report said, citing leaked US intelligence.

The reported offer, which Prigozhin has denied, suggests he may have been so dead-set on claiming victory in the war-torn city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have squared off for months at tremendous cost to both sides, but the Russians in particular, that he was ready to effectively throw the Russian military offensive "under the bus," an expert on Russian security and politics told Insider.

"Obviously, Prigozhin was looking for shortcuts," said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "And particularly, shortcuts at the expense of his main enemy of the moment," the defense ministry and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Wagner mercenaries have played a key role in Moscow's months-long bid to capture Bakhmut, located in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region. The fight for the city is the longest and bloodiest battle since Russian forces launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Desperate for a symbolic victory amid a faltering winter offensive in Ukraine, Russia poured significant resources into its fight for Bakhmut, which holds limited strategic value. Moscow's forces — including its regular military and mercenary army — incurred heavy losses in just a few months of fighting, and a lack of progress on the battlefield exposed rifts between Prigozhin and Russia's military leadership.

Prigozhin, the notorious Wagner leader and financier, has routinely criticized top military officials over the Kremlin's handling of its struggling war, with a major point of contention being a lack of ammunition and weaponry reaching the mercenaries in combat. And according to a new report, amid these tensions, Prigozhin attempted derail Russia's battlefield operations in a major way.

Determined to toss Russia's offensive 'under the bus'

As Wagner continued to take substantial losses around Bakhmut, Prigozhin in late January offered to give Ukraine the locations of Russian troops so Kyiv could then launch attacks against them. In exchange, Ukrainian soldiers would withdraw from the area, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

The report, which cited top secret US military intelligence leaked to social media, said Prigozhin made the offer on several occasions to Ukraine's military intelligence directorate, but it was rejected because Kyiv doesn't trust the Wagner boss.

Insider was unable to verify the document's authenticity, and the Pentagon declined to comment on the report. Prigozhin, who has long enjoyed close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied offering the intelligence to Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers walk in the position close to Bakhmut, Ukraine, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers walk in the position close to Bakhmut, Ukraine, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.AP Photo/LIBKOS

Galeotti, an expert in modern Russian intelligence services, security politics, and criminality at RUSI, described the reported move as a "catastrophic blunder" on Prigozhin's behalf, especially now that the information has been made public.

Prigozhin "was clearly so determined to try and deliver the victory for the boss in Bakhmut that he was prepared to essentially throw the rest of the Russian offensive under the bus," said Galeotti, who is also an honorary professor at the University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

"Now, if he got away with it, then maybe he would've been in a very strong position, but not only did he not get away with it, this has now become public knowledge," Galeotti said. He described Prigozhin's offer to Ukraine as "another sign of the essentially dysfunctional way that when Putin's power politics gets transposed to the battlefield, it just doesn't work."

'A serious problem for the Russians'

Irregular Russian commanders, such as Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads a band of Chechen fighters, have long been a feature of Putin's war in Ukraine. But these individuals appear to be calling more shots on the battlefield, or at least attempting to amid pushback from the defense ministry, and war experts say they may be taking advantage of Moscow's military leadership and threatening operations.

Prigozhin, for example, went on a screaming tirade earlier this month against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov and blamed them for mounting Wagner casualties, later threatening to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut because they lacked enough ammunition.

Prigozhin then walked back his threat a few days later, claiming he was promised ammunition from Moscow. Experts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in an analysis that the reversal was likely a coordinated effort from Prigozhin and Kadyrov to blackmail Russia's military command into giving Wagner the resources it demanded, even if the defense ministry's priorities were elsewhere.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, an eastern city where fierce battles against Russian forces have been taking place, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, May 15, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, an eastern city where fierce battles against Russian forces have been taking place, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, May 15, 2023.AP Photo/Libkos

"Putin's basic way of running the Russian system is divide and rule," Galeotti said, referring to the Russian leader's tendency to play factions off of one another and compete for his attention. "We have a whole variety of sharp-toothed political entrepreneurs with overlapping responsibilities competing against each other, trying to rip each other down, trying to pitch their own bright ideas to the boss."

This strategy has worked for Putin during his decades in power, but "it really doesn't work well when it's transposed to the battlefield and you have all these multiple different sort of private armies and different forces," Galeotti said. "It's been a serious problem for the Russians throughout."

While Prigozhin's threat to withdraw from Bakhmut was among the more serious examples of tensions boiling over, his reported offer to reveal Russian troops positions to the Ukrainians seems to be one of the more telling instances of Wagner's crippling feud with the Russian military leadership.

Prigozhin "probably over-promised around Bakhmut, realized he needed a victory when he was riding high last year, made way too many enemies, and appreciated that of course they were all looking for an opportunity to tear him down," Galeotti said. "And I think this is the point. This is a system which essentially encourages ruthless opportunism, but above all, self-interest rather than loyalty."

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