Wagner's Ammo Problem Could Cost Them Bakhmut Amid Massive Losses

The leader of the private paramilitary Wagner Group is accusing top Russian military officials of "treason" amid claims of deprived ammunition.

Yevgeny Prigozhin made the claims in two recent audio recordings, saying it was "tantamount to nothing more than simply spitting at Wagner." It comes as the private military contractor's mercenaries have fought alongside Russian soldiers in the hot bed of Bakhmut for months, part of a battle Russia has pinpointed as fundamental to its special military operation.

"There is simply direct opposition going on (to attempts to equip Wagner fighters)," Prigozhin said in one voice message on his Telegram channel, per Reuters. "This can be equated to high treason."

Prigozhin Putin Russia Ukraine Bakhmut Ammo Wagner
This picture taken on July 4, 2017, shows Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin prior to a meeting with business leaders held by Russian and Chinese presidents at the Kremlin in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a concert in Luzhniki Stadium on February 22, 2023, in Moscow, Russia. Prigozhin is claiming that top Russian military officials are committing "treason" by depleting his Wagner Group's ammunition. SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images; Getty Images

"The chief of the general staff and the defense minister are giving orders right and left, not just not to give Wagner PMC (private military company) ammunition, but not to help it with air transport," he added.

On Monday, the U.K. defense ministry suggested that Russian forces operating in and around Bakhmut are likely facing "increasingly political pressure" due to winning the battle before the war's one-year anniversary on Friday.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank, crediting Russian "millbloggers" documenting fighting in the Donbas city, said Tuesday that encircling Bakhmut is likely unrealistic.

Former U.S. Marine Troy Offenbecker, who is fighting in Bakhmut as part of Ukraine's International Legion made up of foreign soldiers, told ABC News that "the life expectancy is around four hours on the frontline."

He added that the scene is often characterized as a "meat grinder" due to the "chaotic" nature of fighting.

'Playing the balancing game'

The contention of Mikhail Troitskiy, professor of practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is that Prigozhin is "going all in now" due to the number of mercenaries within his group being "decimated" in cities like Bakhmut and otherwise.

"[Prigozhin's] gamble is that Putin needs him as a counterweight to the influence of uniformed military and perhaps also the security apparatus," he told Newsweek. "Prigozhin can still be contained by the security services, but that would require Putin's order which has not been forthcoming.

"That certainly generates additional tension within the Russian governing circles. The tension may be aggravated by Putin's indecisiveness that was manifested in his two recent public speeches. He wants to continue playing the balancing game, which is a risky course of action for him."

Prigozhin and the Wagner Group "do not pose a significant threat to the stability of the Russian political regime," Troitskiy added.

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of political analysis firm R.Politik, told Newsweek that the ammunition deficit "is real" and that the situation "is very bad for Wagner."

"I think that MOD tries to push Wagner to curtail its military activities the way it works today (independently)," Stanovaya said. "Prigozhin resists as he can, pushing the limits in his public appearance and obviously not facing any problems with that yet. We can't know how it will end."

However, she said Putin still considers Prigozhin to be a real loyal patriot who stands for the Russian motherland and would die for it—which reinforces the commitment of Prigozhin and his fighters to protect Putin in theory.

Putin is also fed up with the countless quarrels emanating between MOD brass and the Wagner Group, she added.

"Putin insists that MOD remains on top of the SVO (special military operation) and its plans must be respected and obeyed by all other players, including Prigozhin. Perhaps, Putin will get involved and try to manage this conflict but it really bothers him to waste his time for this."

Prigozhin is definitely not an adversary of Putin, said Maria Popova, associate professor of political science at McGill University.

She told Newsweek that whatever conflict exists between Pregozhin and the MOD, Putin is above both entities—and Pregozhin's power is based on his personal relationship with Putin.

"The cause is suffering and takes a backseat to regime infighting," Popova said. "This is not unusual, for each of these actors losing the regime infighting battle could actually have personal safety consequences. So, it's not surprising that they prioritize their own survival over that of the soldiers fighting, or over success for Russia."

Update 02/22/23, 2:08 p.m. ET: This story was updated with comment from Maria Popova.