A representative for Wagner Group boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin was reportedly denied access to Russia’s military command in Ukraine Monday, in the latest sign that Moscow is sidelining Prigozhin’s mercenary fighting group in the war in Ukraine.
The apparent snub comes as Prigozhin pleads with Moscow to provide the Wagner Group with the ammunition it desperately needs in the war. The ammunition, though, has not been delivered—an act Prigozhin said could either be “ordinary bureaucracy or betrayal.”
“On March 5, I wrote a letter to the commander of the SMO grouping about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. On March 6, at 8 a.m., my representative at the headquarters had his pass canceled and was denied access,” Prigozhin said in a Telegram post, according to a Reuters translation.
Wagner Group fighters asked Russia for more ammunition in February, noting that Wagner Group mercenaries were dying unnecessarily in Ukraine as they try to fight off a Ukrainian advance in Bakhmut.
The delays and the latest denial to the Wagner representative have raised questions for Prigozhin about whether Russia—over a year into a war that has no end in sight—is willing to use Wagner as a scapegoat in case it loses the war.
“What if they [the Russian authorities] want to set us up, saying that we are scoundrels—and that's why they are not giving us ammunition, not giving us weapons, and not letting us replenish our personnel, including [recruiting] prisoners,” Prigozhin said in a video, referencing recent measures Russia has established to prevent Wagner Group from rounding up prisoners to use on missions in Ukraine with little to no training.
Prigozhin warned that if the supplies are not provided to Wagner, Russia may lose Bakhmut—and more—to Ukraine.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” he said.
Russia has been trying and failing to seize Bakhmut for months, with significant losses, according to the National Security Council.
Although Prigozhin is questioning whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to blame losses on Wagner, Putin has been leaning on Wagner Group fighting as a way to make up for failings of Russia’s more conventional armed forces, according to a previous White House National Security Council assessment.
Wagner Group fighting has been “a bit more effective” than Russia’s forces, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday.
In recent days, the focus of Wagner’s fighting has pushed toward Bakhmut from the east and north, as Ukrainian fighters have retreated west of the Bakhmutia river, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Even so, if Russia does prove victorious in Bakhmut, it likely won’t change the direction of the war, Austin said Monday.
“If the Ukrainians decide to reposition in some of the terrain that’s west of Bakhmut, I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback,” Austin said, according to Fox News, which was traveling with the secretary of defense. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that… the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”