Tensions are rising between Prigozhin, The Russian Ministry of Defense, and the Kremlin as small and strategically 'Insignificant' gains are made on the eastern front.
Russian forces have been on the eastern front for over 8 months now and have only just taken their first apparent 'strategic' settlement of Soledar. But was it conventional Russian forces that 'succeeded'? Or was it the Private Military Company, Wagner, that took the settlement by attrition and numbers, sacrificing potentially up to 10,000 men for the settlement. NOTE - The capture of Soledar was not the primary objective on the eastern front. Bakhmut was and still is the primary objective for Russia. Soledar was meant to allow a partial encirclement of Bakhmut leading to its capture by Russian forces. This is not possible and will not happen due to: up to 10,000 Wagner mercenaries being killed rendering the next advance on Bakhmut almost impossible due to lack of numbers, and the main 'strategic' choke points have not been captured in the Soledar area, meaning Bakhmut is not and will not be encircled.
What is Going On?
On January 12, the Russian MoD publicly praised the assault and army aviation, missile and artillery groups, and airborne VDV forces for capturing Soledar. There was no mention of Wagner. Until 6 hours later when another MoD statement was made recognizing Wagner volunteers and Assault Detachments for helping secure residential areas. This probably upset Prigozhin who now appears to be carrying out his own information operations on the Russian MoD, the Kremlin, and his President. It isn't just one way though. As the illegal yet conventional war continues in Ukraine, a modern social media vs. conventional media war is being waged in Russia and online. Prigozhin and Putin are at the heart of it.
Recent Events of Prigozhin, Putin, and the MoD
What Has Prigozhin Done Recently Then?
- Prigozhin seems to be using Soledar as a bargaining chip to elevate his authority in Russia. The MoD initially claimed conventional Russian forces victory, with no mention of Wagner. They then backtracked and acknowledged them - it appears as though the MoD are struggling to keep their messaging in order.
- Prigozhin played on questions put to him by journalists regarding his future meeting with Putin where he said he would look to discuss Wagner's success in taking Soledar. This undermines Gerasimov and Shoigu and the whole Russian MoD.
- Prigozhin personally visited Soledar in the days leading up to the seizure of the settlement, capitalizing on the media presence and taking photos of him with his Wagner mercenaries allegedly 'advancing'.
- He pre-empted the announcement by the Russian MoD on January 12 by accusing unnamed bureaucrats and government officials of "constantly trying to steal the victory from Wagner PMC". The MoD did indeed then claim full victory with no mention of Wagner forces.
- Milbloggers. both independent and Wagner affiliated churned out articles heavily criticizing the Russian MoD for its reporting and handling of the Soledar 'victory'. The Russian MoD being beaten by an illegal PMC at information warfare?
- Openly argued against the Russian MoD's latest Operational Security update regarding the new guidelines for Russian troops in Ukraine that restrict the use of smartphones and set strict guidelines for soldiers' beards. Prigozhin claimed that beards are customary for many Muslim and Orthodox Christian fighters and claimed that soldiers' use of smartphones was necessary in modern combat.
- Called out members of Putin's Presidential Administration on telegram on January 18 claiming some members are traitors for not wanting to ban YouTube as they want Russia to fail in Ukraine so that a dialogue can be opened with the US.
- Ordered United Russia Part Central Executive Committee Head Alexander Sidyakin, United Russia State Duma parliamentarian Artyom Turovyi, and Donetsk People Republic Head Denis Pushilin met with multiple milbloggers on January 13. He's trying to gather support from his own milbloggers.
- On January 15, Putin publicly attributed the success on the Soledar frontline to the Russian MoD and General Staff. He did this using his favorit means of mass messaging, live television - the form of media that he relied on most throughout his early days in power. Maybe he doesn't know how to use Telegram, or Twitter (or he doesn't have a VPN?). This public acknowledgment is odd. He has never commented on small 'tactical' advances in Ukraine. Is he nervous that Prigozhin has a hold over the media? Is he trying to flex and regain control?
- Putin seems to be increasingly siding with Prigozhin's adversaries more often, likely in order to degrade Prigozhin's influence through Russia and amongst the Ground Forces oeprating illegally in Ukraine. On January 18, Putin met with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov - an enemy of Prigozhin (ISW) - to discuss St. Petersburg's role in the war in Ukraine. NOTE - Prigozhin has previously launched a campaign petitioning for the removal of Beglov from his office for treason for failing to support the Russian war effort. Prigozhin-affiliated outlets published exposes on Beglov claiming he had deliberately impeded the advertising efforts for recruitment into the three St. Petersburg local battalions.
- He continues to double down on the official rhetoric that only conventional Russian forces captured Soledar, publicly rejecting Prigozhin's claims that Wagner played a part in the small 'tactical' victory.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Putin
MoD Being Told What To Do? By Who?
- On January 15, alongside Putin's television address, the Russian MoD continued to report that VDV units were attacking Ukrainian positions with no mention of Wagner in the briefings.
- Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted in his January 16 briefing that the conflict is a "product of information manipulation" and that there manipulations may come from Russia's 'enemies', they may also be coming from the Kremlin's 'friends' - any need to beat around the bush? Just name Prigozhin. And what did Prigozhin have to say about this? Did he deny and assert that there was no bad blood between the Russian MoD and Wagner? No, he continued his tactic of providing vague messaging to create more unrest and increased discussion in the Russian information space. Interestingly, on January 15, he awarded a medal to a Wagner mercenary who had previously been given the medal of courage from Putin.
Gerasimov and Shoigu
So What Next?
Russia is waging an illegal war in Ukraine and an information war online. Can Putin and Prigozhin, the MoD and Wagner keep up on both fronts? The more this continues, the greater the tension builds, and then what? Does Prigozhin have enough support from his milbloggers, journalists, and Russian citizens to continue his information war online? The tensions of war appear to be enough to break up even the closest of friends. Who would have thought that a President and his former hot-dog vendor best friend could fall out.