Wagner Group Has Ambitious Plans Beyond Bakhmut

The Wagner Group of mercenaries could become a "hardline ideological elite" organization following months of intensive fighting in eastern Ukraine.

In a video posted to Telegram on Saturday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who heads up the paramilitary outfit, said that, after the Battle of Bakhmut ends, the Wagner force will become an "army with an ideological component."

The intense clashes in the Donetsk city of Bakhmut have lasted for months, and the Donbas settlement has become a focal point of Moscow's war against Ukrainian defending forces.

Soldiers in Bakhmut
Ukrainian servicemen of the State Border Guard Service wait for an order to move to the mortar position at the entrance of the shelter in Bakhmut on February 16, 2023, as the head of Russia's mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, said it could take months to capture the embattled Ukraine city and slammed Moscow's "monstrous bureaucracy" for slowing military gains. The city has been a focal pointing of fierce fighting for months in the eastern Donetsk region. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine's General Staff of the Armed Forces posted on Facebook on Sunday that Russian troops "did not stop the storming actions" in Bakhmut. However, Russia's soldiers had no confirmed advances in the city on Saturday, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank.

But Russian forces appear to be making creeping gains in Bakhmut. As of Wednesday, the ISW said that Russia controlled around 50 percent of the city. Russian military forces have fought alongside the Wagner Group recruits for control of the bombarded settlement, and are believed to have sustained heavy casualties.

However, once the battle is over, the paramilitary group will be overhauled and redesigned, according to its founder.

Prigozhin could be hoping to "restructure" the Wagner Group into a "hardline ideological elite parallel military organization" to ensure they have a "specialized role" in Ukraine, the ISW said on Saturday.

This could be designed to replace its previous aim of gaining in Bakhmut, once the battle is over, the think tank added.

Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with a personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a video posted to Telegram that some of the recruits will be relieved of their duties, "leaving the best." The Wagner Group is notorious for its recruitment of convicts.

Another wave of recruitment will follow to create the "army with an ideological component," Prigozhin said.

The Wagner Group has been recruiting through Russia, focusing particularly on signing up younger fighters, the ISW said.

"The Wagner Group likely aims to recruit more impressionable recruits through these youth-focused campaigns and instill in them Prigozhin's extremist ideological brand of Russian ultranationalism," the think tank evaluated.

On Saturday, former U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling said the "growing presence" of private military companies, like the Wagner Group, will "contribute to chaos within Russia" if Putin's government falters.

On Sunday, Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Kyiv was committed to defending Bakhmut. He added that further settlements around the city would fall, should Moscow seize control of Bakhmut.