Wagner Group Leadership in Disarray Amid 'Significant' War Losses: ISW

The leader of the Wagner Group was locked in a spat with a nationalist rival as the Russian mercenary organization continued to suffer heavy losses in Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

An ISW report published on Thursday states that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin had recently been in an "altercation" with former Russian army commander Igor Girkin, highlighting "competition among Russian nationalist groups for political influence in Russia."

Girkin accused Prigozhin of "deliberately misconstruing" criticism of his political ambitions as an attack on the Wagner Group forces fighting in Ukraine. Girkin also accused Prigozhin of diverting personnel to Africa and Syria "instead of deploying his mercenaries to win the war in Ukraine."

The Wagner Group leader reportedly shot back by denying that he has any political ambitions and claiming that "his team attempted to bribe Girkin in an effort to silence his criticism of Wagner forces."

Wagner Group Mercenaries Russia-Ukraine War Deaths Nationalism
Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, is pictured in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on June 16, 2016, while Ukrainian soldiers, right, carry a bag holding a dead Russian soldier out of a destroyed building in Kupiansk, Ukraine, on December 15, 2022. Prigozhin was reportedly focused on a public argument with his Russian nationalist rival Igor Girkin recently while the Wagner Group suffered "significant" losses in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov; SERGEY BOBOK/AFP

Prigozhin then "sarcastically" invited Girkin "to join one of Wagner's assault units in occupied Luhansk Oblast," prompting the former commander to say that he would do so if sent "a serious invitation."

"Prigozhin and Girkin—both critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin's conduct of the war—are likely competing for influence and patronage among pro-war politicians disillusioned with the progress of the war," the ISW report states.

"Prigozhin and Girkin are likely competing for favor with the same pro-war nationalist patronage networks within the Kremlin that are represented by outspoken nationalist politicians," it continues.

Meanwhile, ISW said that Wagner Group mercenaries fighting in Eastern Ukraine had suffered "significant losses" in recent months. Thursday's report cited multiple media claims that over 1,000 Wagner Group personnel were recently laid to rest at two burial sites in Russia.

Many of those buried are believed to have died during fighting in the Bakhmut area, where bloody battles continue to rage between Ukrainian forces and Russia-aligned fighters, including Wagner Group mercenaries.

In addition, the "majority" of the Wagner Group personnel buried at the sites were reportedly prisoners, which was the "result of the Wagner Group's overwhelming reliance on prison recruitment and its operational use of these personnel in costly assaults."

"The Wagner Group likely experienced significant losses in attritional offensive operations in eastern Ukraine over the past few months," ISW said. "The high number of casualties is likely constraining the Wagner Group's ability to continue offensive operations at a high pace and will likely prompt further prison recruitment efforts."

Former Wagner Group commander Andrei Medvedev has claimed that prisoners brought to Ukraine to fight on behalf of the mercenary group were subjected to "incredibly horrible" treatment, according to an interview with his lawyer that Reuters published on Thursday.

Medvedev, through his lawyer, reportedly said that he personally witnessed "the shooting of his comrades while he was watching because they tried to flee" from the battlefield.

The U.S. government announced a series of new economic sanctions aimed at the Wagner Group on Thursday, while declaring it to be a "significant transnational criminal organization."

ISW previously reported that critics of Putin, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and others dissatisfied with the state of the war, now in its 12th month, had increasingly been speaking out "without fear of retribution."

Newsweek has reached out to the Russian MoD for comment.