Vladimir Putin appears to be using the bloody battle for Bakhmut to put upstart Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin back in his box.

Behind the scenes, analysts think Putin is exploiting this key battle in eastern Ukraine conflict to maintain control of his regime, in face of Prigozhin’s bid for power and influence.

Putin, the arch-manipulator, probably wants key establishment figures, including defence minister Shoigu and chief of general staff Gerasimov, to ensure that the Bakhmut bloodbath seriously weakens the Wagner forces.

These defence figures are happy to do Putin’s bidding. Prigozhin has poured scorn on the Russian defence ministry and the military command since May 2022, via Wagner-affiliated ultranationalist social media platforms. Pro-Wagner military bloggers have consistently crowed about Wagner’s successes on the battlefield, and in September, even suggested that the Wagner financier could replace Shoigu as defence minister.

As payback, and with Putin’s approval, the Russian MoD has been impeding Prigozhin’s ability to recruit convicts and secure ammunition, thereby forcing Prigozhin to publicly recognise his dependency on the Russian MoD, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The think-tank says that the Russian MoD started recruiting prisoners in October, which undermined Prigozhin’s recruitment efforts.

Prigozhin has threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut and insinuated that the Russian MoD used Wagner to bear the brunt of the high-intensity attritional urban warfare needed to it in order to spare Russian conventional forces.

On 5 March, Prigozhin said that Wagner required additional reinforcements, after Ukrainian military officials claimed that Russian forces were suffering a seven-to-one casualty ratio compared with their own.

Yesterday the horrific fight for Bakhmut ground on. The commander of Ukrainian ground forces conceded the situation was difficult, but claimed his troops were repelling all Russian advances. Prigozhin said the same thing. It appears to be a gory stalemate, although some pro-Ukraine voices said Kyiv should pull back to stop it losing any more men.

Ukraine says more than 1,100 Russia soldiers were killed at Bakhmut in the past few days there Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian fighters there in the previous 24 hours.

Kremlin watchers think Putin probably signalled publicly, if somewhat obliquely, his growing concerns about Prigozhin as far back as October, in a period when Putin felt particularly vulnerable due to the building failures of his war effort.

On 5 October, he made an allusion to the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great’s authority in the mid-1770s, noting that the rebellion occurred because Pugachev “claimed to be a tsar” and because of the “weakening of the central power” in what some interpreted as a direct response to Prigozhin’s criticism of the war effort and attempts to enhance his own military and political influence.

According to analysts at ISW, Kremlin officials confirmed that “Putin has been increasingly preferring loyalty over competence within his inner circle, and Putin may have perceived Prigozhin’s critiques a form of disloyalty”.

This line of thought suggests Prigozhin overestimated Putin’s reliance on Wagner forces and will pay a price for attempting to replace Russian military and political leadership with Wagner-affiliated figures.

In addition, the ISW thinks Putin and the Russian MoD may use Prigozhin as a scapegoat for the bloody cost of the battle for Bakhmut. It says: “Putin will likely use Wagner’s high casualties, reports about poor morale, and war crimes to deflect from likely equal or possibly worse problems within the Russian Armed Forces.”

Ultimately, the building conflict between the Russian defence ministry and the Wagner group reinforces previous suggestions that Putin actively encourages competition and even conflict in his inner circle, in order to prevent the emergence of individuals who might threaten his own power.

But Putin is probably in a lose-lose situation. If the Russian MoD seriously degrades the Wagner group in the trenches around Bakhmut, this will undermine Russia’s hopes of a final victory on which Putin’s survival prospects may depend.

By admin