The recent rift between the Wagner Group and the Russian army has raised several questions about the future of the Ukraine conflict. Here's what regional experts say on the matter.

As the Ukraine conflict marks one year since it began on February 24, fighting continues unabated, with prospects of peace looking bleak. 

While Russia has exerted all its might to overpower the Ukrainian resistance, it's also dealing with a range of issues –  from the US-led sanctions and an ongoing information war to internal rifts between its armed forces and the Wagner Group mercenaries.  

The signs of discontent within the Wagner Group became clear when its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a childhood friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, lashed out at the Russian army, accusing it of cutting off the group's access to arms and turning them into sitting ducks on the Ukrainian battleground.  

The Wagner Group has been actively used by Moscow, especially in the past eight years, to shape the course of various conflicts in Syria, Libya and some African countries and give Russia a geopolitical edge over its adversaries.  

Prigozhin most recently posted an image of his dead troops in Ukraine while blaming Russian official army chiefs for their share in the issue. 

On February 21st, Prigozhin publicly expressed his dissent by sharing a graphic image of his deceased mercenaries and accusing Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov of treason for their role in the killings. 

But just two days later, he confirmed that the supply of arms and ammunition had resumed and that his fighters were now fully armed and prepared to press further on the battlefield. 

A former ‘Hotdog Seller’ and ‘Putin’s Chef’, Prigozhin is known for having bagged catering contracts in the Kremlin thanks to his close ties with Putin. 

Prigozhin's latest meltdown against Putin's senior ministers may be unsettling for many of Putin's supporters. This is not the first time he has had a fractured rapport with Russian Defence Minister Shoigu.

“This is a very personal fight that has been going on for a long period,” Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at RUSI, told TRT World. 

Ramani said that the Wagner Group made side agreements with Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad, "behind the back of the Russian defence ministry", while the Russian military was trying to increase its involvement in Syria in 2016. 

“Prigozhin, while having a really close relationship with Putin, has a bad personal relationship with Shoigu,” Ramani said.

The henchman and Russian conservatives 

Dr Muhammed Kocak, an Ankara-based Russia analyst, believes that there has been "a level of competition" between the Russian defence ministry and the Wagner Group.

“While the Russian military is composed of enlisted personnel, the Wagner Group consists of volunteers and former prisoners with limited training. The Russian defence ministry considers the Wagner unprofessional, but Prigozhin argues that it is the Wagner fighters who do the heavy work on the battlefield and that the defence ministry only hampers their operations,” Kocak said. 

During the course of the Ukraine war, Shoigu has often faced criticism for failing to capture Kiev and receiving too many strategic setbacks in the conflict.

Prigozhin is “trying to appeal" to an influential block of conservative Russian nationalists who have grown frustrated with the military record of Shoigu in Ukraine, according to Ramani. 

Ramani, however, ruled out the possibility of this friction causing any major splinter or divide in the Russian offensive in Ukraine. 

“I think that Prigozhin will be able to recruit more of these conservative nationalists into his group, so instead of the overall Russian military, the Wagner Group would take credit for military successes and then he (Prigozhin) will get more influence over politics.”

The Russian defence ministry denied  Prigozhin's claims, saying “all statements allegedly made by assault units on shell shortages are absolutely untrue”. The statement did not make any direct mention of either Prigozhin or the Wagner Group. 

The ministry provided the numbers of rockets, artillery rounds, mortars and tank rounds provided to mercenary groups between 18 and 20 February.. 

The Prigozhin episode has many Russia observers wondering whether Putin would respond to this or simply ignore it.

Although Putin publicly denies having any relationship with the former hotdog seller, Ramani said many reports suggest that the two still have a "very close and significant relationship".

The question, however, remains: Will Putin sever all ties with Prigozhin? 

Ramani said Putin needed to install a trustworthy loyalist in the Russian security grid, someone who is not tied to the defence ministry, and Prigozhin serves that purpose. 

"Basically, the idea was to have a powerful influence on security policy through someone who is not part of any kind of institution. Prigozhin played that role,” Ramani said. 

The Wagner Group, as described by Ramani, seems to operate with a significant degree of autonomy compared to the Russian military, which operates under the central government's tight control.

Kocak's view complements Ramani's. He believes that by having Prigozhin and his Wagner Group as an unconventional in his arsenal, Putin can effortlessly bypass the complex military bureaucracy and swiftly pursue his goals in offshore conflicts.

“Prigozhin is also a long-time henchman of Putin," Kocak said. "Although it is debatable whether he will be given a wider responsibility within the Russian security bureaucracy, one should not expect Prigozhin to suddenly fall out of favour along with his volunteer army”. 

Source: TRT World