Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary organisation, won the battle when Russia took Bakhmut, Ukraine, in May. This marked the end of the longest combat of the conflict.
The conquest of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut seemed to be Prigozhin’s personal preoccupation as his mercenaries spearheaded the assault on the city. The public feud between him, the person formerly known as “Putin’s chef,” and the Russian defence ministry will be one aspect of the battle’s legacy.
The businessman known by the alias “chef” Prigozhin built his fortune in part by obtaining catering contracts from the Kremlin. His Wagner mercenary group has represented Moscow in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali, and Mozambique. It is also a vital force fighting for Russia in Ukraine, despite the fact that Prigozhin just recently openly confirmed his affiliation with Wagner.
Since then, although still keeping a tight relationship with President Vladimir Putin, he has developed a hostile social media presence, portraying himself and his soldiers as more brutal and effective fighters than the Russian military.
When coupled with his soldiers’ victories in the gruelling war for Bakhmut, Prigozhin’s sharp criticism of the Russian defence ministry elevated him from a hitherto covert figure to a prominent political participant.
As the anniversary of the conflict drew near in February, the tension between Prigozhin and Russian defence officials grew more apparent.
At that time, Prigozhin’s mercenary band was having trouble adding new members. Wagner was able to launch numerous expensive offensives in Bakhmut because of the sheer size of his army, which was bolstered by prisoners directly recruited by Prigozhin. But as word of Wagner’s shockingly high death toll reached Russian correctional camps, Prigozhin announced in early February that he would halt taking in new prisoners without providing a justification.
Shortly after, in venomous, profanity-laced audio messages posted on social media, he began taking aim at individuals close to the top of Russia’s command structure, accusing the defence minister and the nation’s most senior general of treason.
In an effort to weaken him, Prigozhin alleged that military leaders were purposefully withholding ammunition and supplies the Wagner fighters in Bakhmut while Russian forces elsewhere continued to suffer setbacks.
A top-secret U.S. intelligence report that surfaced online in April claims that the conflict became so serious that Putin got directly involved and summoned Prigozhin and Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to a meeting that is thought to have taken place on February 22. Using a different transliteration of the minister’s name, the paper states, “The meeting almost certainly concerned, at least in part, Prigozhin’s public accusations and resulting tension with Shoygu.”
The conflict’s level of public intensity changed over time. The Russian defence ministry made a rare confirmation of their cooperation in April when it stated that Russian paratrooper forces were protecting Wagner’s flanks in the western portion of the city. Prigozhin later claimed that his fighters in Bakhmut had got the ammunition they required.
But in May, over the course of three weeks, Prigozhin made a number of incendiary remarks. He threatened to remove them from the city on May 10 after accusing Russia’s military bureaucracy once more of depriving Wagner forces of the munitions they required to completely conquer Bakhmut. Two days later, he pretended to reverse course, as he had previously done, this time claiming to have gotten adequate assurances of receiving more guns.
He characterised the Russian army’s claims of a partial “regrouping” of its soldiers in the city as a “rout,” and he refuted an allegation that he had promised to reveal the Russian army’s locations near Bakhmut in exchange for Ukraine’s consent to withdraw from the region. He announced that Bakhmut was completely under Wagner’s authority in late May.
Ukraine quickly refuted the assertion. A few hours later, the Russian defence ministry declared that Wagner’s activities with the aid of conventional Russian forces had “completed” the seizure of the city.