Ukraine conflict: Russia seeks direct control of Wagner Group
After months of infighting between defense officials and the private military organization, Russia appears to have sought to assume direct control of Wagner.
On Saturday, Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov stated that “volunteer formations” will be required to sign contracts directly with the Ministry of Defence.
The broadly phrased comment is usually assumed to be directed at the group.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, though, declared in a scathing statement on Sunday that his personnel would refuse the contracts.
The private military group has played a significant role in the Ukrainian conflict, fighting alongside Russian forces.
However, Prigozhin, who is thought to have political ambitions of his own, has been locked in a public feud for months with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and military leader Valery Gerasimov.
He has repeatedly accused them of incompetence and of purposefully undersupplying Wagner units fighting in Ukraine.
“Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu,” Prigozhin said in response to a request for comment on the announcement by the defense ministry. “Shoigu cannot properly manage military formation.”
He argued that his squad was highly integrated with the Russian military, but that having to report to the defense minister would reduce its efficiency.
While the announcement on Saturday did not expressly mention Wagner or any other paramilitary groups, Russian media speculated that the new contracts were an effort to control Prigozhin and his soldiers.
The decision, however, was intended to “increase the effectiveness” of Russian units operating in Ukraine, according to the defense ministry.
“This will provide volunteer formations with the necessary legal status, as well as common approaches to the organization of comprehensive support and task fulfillment,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that the contracts must be completed by July 1.
The Wagner Group’s long-running feud with the army has threatened to erupt in recent weeks.
Last Monday, the organization seized Lt Col Roman Venevitin, a top frontline army commander, after accusing him of firing fire on a Wagner vehicle near Bakhmut.
Lt Col Venevitin was eventually freed, and in a video published by Russian military bloggers, he accused the group of fomenting “anarchy” on Russia’s frontlines by stealing armaments, forcing mobilized soldiers to sign contracts with the group, and attempting to extort weapons from the defense ministry.
The statements, which looked to be read from a script, were labeled “absolutely total nonsense” by Prigozhin.
He has also indicated that he is prepared to deploy troops on Russian land, declaring on Telegram that Wagner is prepared to combat insurgent groups in the Belgorod region.
Wagner was believed to have 50,000 troops fighting in Ukraine by the US in December.
And the mercenary group has grown in importance as a tool of Russian state power around the world. Its troops are thought to be stationed in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Libya.