There are two battles over the contested town of Bakhmut. There is a military struggle that looks likely to see it fall soon to the Russians. There is also a political struggle, as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman behind the Wagner mercenary group locks horns with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on who can take the eventual credit.
Russia has for months been willing to throw regular soldiers and Wagner mercenaries at Bakhmut, taking losses far out of proportion with its limited strategic value. The reason was simple, and a telling example of how Kremlin politics distort Russian military calculations: Vladimir Putin wanted a victory, however Pyrrhic, and whatever the price.
For much of this time, Wagner has been doing most of the heavy lifting. It has thrown thousands of badly-trained troops recruited from Russia’s labour camps at the Ukrainians. After all, for Mr Prigozhin, they are little more than human ammunition, screening better-trained Wagner elements and forcing the Ukrainians to burn through their dwindling stocks of shells.
Mr Prigozhin is neither a close Putin ally nor a potential successor. Instead, he is an entrepreneur who has made a career out of doing whatever the Kremlin wants doing, whether setting up troll farms to meddle with the US elections in 2016 or, as now, running a mercenary army. As such, he thrives on publicity and attention, and we tend to hear from him loudest when he is on a winning streak or in trouble.
Mr Prigozhin is certainly being noisy now, because he realises he has been outplayed by the subtle and mercurial Mr Shoigu. Mr Prigozhin, a man seemingly defined by his grudges, has long been his fiercest critic. For months, the minister let Mr Prigozhin accuse him of everything from incompetence to treachery, until the time was right.
Now that Bakhmut seems set to fall, Wagner’s forces have in part been rotated away, towards the southern battlefields where there is hard fighting but less chance of victory. Mr Prigozhin is also claiming that his forces are being starved of ammunition, whether out of “ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal”.
This may just be because the Russians are also having to moderate their usage, but could also represent Mr Shoigu’s revenge. Meanwhile, regular army troops are being moved up to take advantage if the Ukrainians do retreat or are pushed back. One way or another, Mr Shoigu seems determined to deny Mr Prigozhin the chance to portray himself to Mr Putin as the victor of Bakhmut.
Mr Prigozhin is now threatening that Wagner may be forced to withdraw, and that the whole Russian line would collapse as a result. This should not be taken at face value. For all the overheated claims that Mr Prigozhin could launch a coup, he has no real power base in Moscow, and could not even deploy Wagner fighters outside the war zone because they rely on ammunition and transport provided by the defence ministry. Instead, it is a desperate attempt to persuade Mr Putin to back him, highlighting the political infighting that continues to undermine the Russian war effort.
Thus, Bakhmut is showing both sides of the Russian war effort. In their own clumsy and often brutal way, the Russians are learning some of the lessons of the campaign. Human waves of convict-mercenaries may sound outdated and inhumane, but from Moscow’s point of view, losing five disposable cannon-fodder to kill one Ukrainian soldier – this is the current ratio according to Western figures – is not a bad deal. Less callously, they are now also using small, specialised assault groups and slowly fixing some of their problems coordinating air and ground operations.
Arguably, they have also turned the tables on Kyiv, making the Ukrainians treat Bakhmut’s defence as a matter of honour, such that they are willing to take losses they really cannot afford for a city they could afford to lose.
For all that, though, the essential dysfunctions at the heart of Mr Putin’s system cannot be avoided: the primacy of the wishes of one man with no meaningful military experience, the inability or unwillingness of the generals to tell him when he is wrong, and the intrigues and rivalries between different factions and individuals in his court, which maps across to the battlefield.
Dr Mark Galeotti is the author of Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine (Bloomsbury, 2022)