Joseph Henrotin is editor-in-chief of the magazine DSI (International Defense and Security).
LE FIGARO. - The new video of the boss of Wagner to demand more ammunition is particularly virulent. Does this release surprise you?
Joseph HENROTIN. - The output as such is not amazing, but the form it takes, certainly. A leap has been taken, both in form and in substance. This change, if it does not revolutionize the war, can be significant. On the form, Prigojine had never deprived himself of showing himself with corpses, but it was rather the remains of Ukrainians. Here he shows himself in front of the dead of his own militia, which is a visual break. To the Russian population, he presents himself as more virtuous than the military leaders, the one who takes care of his men and for whom the human factor counts.
The second break is in the tone: Prigozhin's lyrics no longer simply impugn the betrayal of military leaders, but swing into insults. In a second video released shortly after, Wagner's leader threatens to withdraw his fighters from Bakhmout from May 10 due to a lack of ammunition. These two messages mark an increase in pressure on the Russian military authorities, and perhaps also, indirectly, on Vladimir Putin.
Isn't Prigozhin playing with fire, in a context where all criticism of the Kremlin is censored?
This game would be dangerous if it were clearly at odds with Kremlin policy. There, he resorted to a political maneuver: without questioning Putin, he delegitimized military officials Shoigu and Guerasimov, with whom his rivalry is known. If the front gets bogged down, he wants to say, it's not the fault of the leader, but of his followers. He denounces them as traitors and presents himself as the most patriotic of all.
This political manipulation is clever, but not without risk. By dint of intervening in a noisy way, the head of Wagner could alienate many people, including within the Russian army. "The Tarpeian rock is close to the capitol"...
What is his purpose in employing this register?
Prigozhin is credited with political ambitions that he himself has never specified: is it to become Minister of Defense? Being caliph in place of the caliph and frowned upon in Russia, on the other hand being close to the caliph makes it possible to have a strategic position. However, as much as Prigojine could capitalize on taking Soledar, as much with Bakhmout, the situation has been bogged down since the end of December. He finds himself with his beak in the water.
Imagine. Prigojine remains the only person who, since May-June 2022, has been able to obtain a somewhat indicative result while taking Soledar. In Bakhmout, Wagner's militiamen are the only ones to progress. Even if it's an average of 100 meters per week - not a panacea - and if it's just woods, he remains the only one to have achieved a tangible result in terms of territorial capture. He continues to keep the pressure on the front, and the prestige that a victory could bring him is immense. He could become the savior of Russian military ambitions. But now he is prevented from doing so by a question of ammunition! It's infuriating. His anger is understandable. Hence his criticism of those he considers to be responsible for the lack of means.
Is he exaggerating the situation, or is the lack of ammunition really critical?
Russia faces a lack of shells and this crisis seems to persist. Wagner accuses Moscow of keeping the shells for the army, but the latter already complained in February that the ammunition was reserved for Wagner.
From the moment you are not given armored vehicles or heavy armament that allows you to make more significant advances, you have to compensate with artillery fire. If you have no shells, you only have your men. Prigozhin can no longer recruit from prisons, as he once did, because the Ministry of Defense has banned it. As a result, his men are being massacred in Bakhmout and he no longer has a reservoir of new recruits. His ambitions are compromised.
Should we believe him sincere when he feels sorry for the fate of these "fathers" and "sons" who died in battle?
Cynically, we can say that it is not so much about his men that he cries, but rather about his political ambitions. Considering the structure of Wagner's factions, sent in small groups of 15-20 men exposed to Ukrainian defensive fire with heavy casualties and little medical support, one is dealing with crocodile tears. Observers (even if all information is to be taken with a grain of salt) agree that the ratio between killed and wounded would be one to one among the Russians, against one to four or five among the Ukrainians. On the Russian side, the wounded have little chance of surviving. Their support is clearly not Wagner's priority.