Russian servicemen march during a military parade marking the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad during World War Two
There are “significant tensions” emerging between a prominent paramilitary group and the official Russian ministry of defence, according to UK intelligence.
At a time when Russia is thought to be building up its resources for a renewed attack on Ukraine to mark one-year since the invasion began, all is reportedly not well within the forces’ ranks.
One of the few successes Moscow has seen recently was in Soledar, the Ukrainian town where paramilitaries in the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group managed to force Ukraine’s troops back – which Russia took as a victory.
But, the UK’s ministry of defence (MoD) now believes a rift is emerging between the Wagner Group and the Russian ministry of defence.
In its latest update on Thursday, the MoD said: “Significant tensions between Wagner and the Russian ministry of defence are playing out in public.”
The UK intelligence also noted that the scale of the paramilitary’s “convict recruitment programme has probably significantly reduced” compared to its peak between summer and autumn last year.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 3 February 2023
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/lWT8kTolVn
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/8WJTfSaE0x
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 3, 2023
The MoD has previously speculated that the Wagner Group relied on “poorly-trained convicts” who are just given a smart phone or tablet and told to follow a pre-planned route using commercial satellite imagery to launch their offensives.
“Wagner operatives who deviate from their assault routes without authorisation are likely being threatened with summary execution,” the MoD update said in December, claiming that the Kremlin sees these troops as highly “expendable”.
On Friday, the UK intelligence also pointed to official data from the Russian Federal Penal Service showing that the national penal population has decreased by around 6,000 since November 2022 – compared to a decrease of 23,000 between September and November last year.
“Wagner recruitment was likely a major contributing factor to this drop,” it concluded, but with more convicts staying in prison, it suggests fewer are being recruited to serve for the paramilitaries.
The MoD suggested that the Russian army was trying to wean itself off its dependence on the group, explaining: “Anecdotal evidence from Ukrainian combatants over the last ten days suggests a reduced Russian reliance on human wave style assaults by Wagner convict fighters in key sectors.”
The UK officials speculated that “competition between factions in the Russian elite is likely to be partially responsible for the reduced supply of convicts.”
It comes shortly after Russian president Vladimir Putin appointed a new commander to watch over the war in Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov.
According to the New York Times, Gerasimov’s appointment was “seen as an attempt to keep in check” the increasingly vocal head of the Wagner group mercenaries, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.
Meanwhile, Russia reportedly sent opera singers, actors and circus performers to the front line in Ukraine to boost troops’ “fragile morale” in yet another indication that the war is still not going to plan.