Has Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Overplayed His Hand?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the outspoken head of the notorious paramilitary unit, the Wagner Group, appears to be overplaying his hand in the war in Ukraine.

Wagner Group fighters have been spearheading Russia's military in offensives in Ukraine's Donbas region, and earlier in January, Prigozhin said his paramilitaries had captured the salt-mining town of Soledar.

Prigozhin has been lauding his fighters as the most effective units in the war, while simultaneously aiming criticism at the Russian military—in doing so, he has clashed on several occasions with Russia's defense ministry.

After the capture of Soledar, Russia's first gain in Ukraine since the summer of 2022, Prigozhin released a video praising his fighters as "probably the most experienced army in the world today."

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen in St. Petersburg, Russia on June 17, 2016. Prigozhin, the outspoken head of the notorious paramilitary unit, the Wagner Group, appears to be overplaying his hand in the war in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

However, his forces are failing to make significant advances in the embattled city of Bakhmut, six months after he and the Russian defense ministry poured fighters into the region in an attempt to capture it.

And the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank based in Washington, has observed that Russia's military is gradually replacing Wagner fighters, meaning Prigozhin is losing his influence in the Kremlin.

In the summer of 2022, the Wagner Group had in part stood in for the Russian military, "which misled Prigozhin into overestimating his importance in the Russian military and political spheres," according to the think tank.

The Kremlin will no longer "need to appease Prigozhin" as the Russian military becomes less dependent on his fighters, and as the Wagner Group plays a less prominent role in operations around Bakhmut, according to the ISW.

Further, Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision on January 11 to appoint Valery Gerasimov, demoting his previous commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, shows the Russian president is putting his trust in "the conventional Russian military once more," the ISW said.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Prigozhin is a Russian businessman born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, who earned the nickname "Putin's chef" through his catering contracts with the Kremlin.

The former hot-dog seller turned billionaire restaurateur made a name for himself following a stint in prison. After his release, he began carrying out the catering for Kremlin banquets and has personally served Putin himself.

He set up his restaurant and catering business, Concord Catering, which at first supplied food for school children. He later secured a contract to feed the Russian army.

The businessman stepped out of the shadows in September 2022 and declared himself to be the mastermind behind the Wagner Group, which assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Prigozhin claimed he previously "avoided" associating himself with the shadowy group to protect his fighters' identities.

The paramilitary outfit has been accused of doing Russia's dirty work in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique, and eastern Ukraine and its fighters have been accused of committing human rights violations.

According to Western intelligence estimates, Prigozhin has a 50,000-strong force in Ukraine, mainly consisting of convicts recruited with predatory practices. He has been hiring in penal colonies in Russia, offering male prisoners commuted sentences and cash incentives in return for six months of military service in Ukraine.

The ISW has said that "Prigozhin's recent apparent fall from grace and influence" likely "reflects the real limitations on his actual power."

The Wagner Group's lack of administrative organs has stopped it from becoming an effective parallel military structure, the think tank added.

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