3 May 2023

Everyone is waiting on bated breath for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Where will it take place? Will the Russian lines and chain of command crumble? Will the counteroffensive be successful enough to quash rising grievances concerning fiscal and military assistance oversight – as we are seeing in the United States?

There have been numerous reports on how Russia’s war machine is slowly grinding to a halt. Russia is sending 70-year-old non-upgraded T-55 tanks to Ukraine. There are across-the-board logistical constraints, including artillery and small-calibre ammunition. But these reports do not mean that Russia’s defence will be soft and disorganized.

Russia had months to prepare defences which include trenches, anti-tank trenches, razor wire, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and concrete dragon’s teeth barriers. In fact, the UK MoD stated that there were two plants producing these structures back in November. There was a lot of speculation that Putin would call up another minor conscription due to the losses that Russian forces have endured and the coming Ukraine offensive.

It also seems that Russian forces adopted a Wagner Group tactic of having “assault units”. This is where infantry tries to storm the frontline on foot while being supported by armour on their flanks. For the Wagner Group, it meant that lower-level officers were able to adapt and have some leeway when it came to their orders, unlike the Russian Army where they are still based on Soviet military regulations and doctrine. This would also benefit less-trained troops as orders would be much simpler, but Ukrainian experiences on the front showed that these units were machine gun and cannon fodder reminiscent of World War One assaults over the line. There are also cases where Wagner fighters, and now seems Russian infantry, ignore the pleas of their wounded comrades.

However, there is a complex new development that is evolving in Russia – new Private Military Corporations (PMCs). PMCs are illegal under the Russian constitution, but their existence is tacitly allowed given that their operations and losses can be denied or not acknowledged by the Kremlin. Moreover, for the case of Ukraine, the recruitment of troops through prisons and other institutions gave some leeway for conscription pressures for the Russian government.

Private Armies

The Wagner Group seemed to be the PMC for Russia for many years. It deployed in Syria and has extensive deployments in Africa. In addition to this, the Wagner Group appeared to be an extension where Russia could strengthen its economy and bypass its sanctioning. In fact, the Wagner Group’s concentration on Bakhmut suggests that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, wants to control the area’s salt and gypsum mines.  It also assisted Russia’s foreign policy by strengthening ties with African states and weakening any Western or post-colonial ties.

But with their success came discontent from the Russian military and defence ministry. Prigozhin has lambasted the Russian defence ministry and its minister Sergey Shoigu in public countless times. Progozhin accused the Russian defence ministry of not providing logistical support a few times since the Battle for Bakhmut began and in fact, just a few days ago Prigozhin threatened to pull out of Bakhmut if not given munitions. There is speculation that the death of a Russian military blogger Vladen Tatarsky, who was more sympathetic to the Wagner Group, was orchestrated by the Russian defence ministry or security services. Tatarsky was killed by a bomb while he ate at a café owned by Prigozhin.

Now it seems that Russian energy giant, Gazprom, is creating its own PMC.  Gazprom’s CEO Alexi Miller is a bitter rival of Prigozhin’s and has denounced him in the past.  Miller was the one to coin Prigozhin as “the Kremlin’s caterer” and it did not have positive connotations. Their rivalry may, and probably will, spill over into Russia’s domestic politics. Miller is much more connected with the other Russian oligarchs and pushing Prigozhin out of Putin’s circle would be easier with those allies

The Russian government under Putin allowed for the existence of the oligarchs but reigned them. They are allowed to exist and profit from their post-Soviet enterprises, but under conditions. The first, of course, is not to openly criticize Putin’s government. The second is that if Putin, or the government, asked for anything – money, logistical support, favours etc. those would be provided without question.

So now we have Alexi Miller creating his own PMC – PMC Potok. The Kyiv Post released a video of some mercenary fighters of the PMC Potok stating that they had abandoned their positions in Ukraine due to a lack of weapons and that the Wagner Group command threatened to retaliate for abandoning their posts. There is another video circulating (to the right) of a Wagner fighter refuting this.

This is a destabilizing factor in Ukraine as two rival PMCs, headed by two Russian rivals, may act against one another – maybe a firefight between them. However, it is not significant enough that it will crumble the Russian defensive line.

It is more curious to see how it will play out in Russia’s domestic politics. Gazprom is iconic and integral to Russia’s oil and gas industry and Prigozhin does not have that domestic industrial clout. So, will the Russian Defence Ministry favour Potok more than Wagner and strangle them out of Ukraine? But what happens to Prigozhin if this is the case? . But will Prigozhin go quietly into the night? Will Russian domestic politics be even more unstable if a coup might occur? The West’s policy with sanctions has been to hope that there would be some sort of regime change either started by the masses or the oligarchs.

This all being said, I am intensely watching what will happen with Ukraine’s counteroffensive, but once one steps back and sees the Gazprom PMC on the rise…one has to wonder will be this the Wagner PMC’s downfall? Or Putin’s?

Feature Photo: “Gazprom”, Flickr, Ruben van Eijik, 2009

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]