Russian President Vladimir Putin and the notorious paramilitary unit, the Wagner Group, founded by his ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, are clashing over the capture of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
Tensions between the Wagner Group, which provides soldiers for hire, and Russia’s defense ministry, appeared to mount on Friday, when Putin attributed success in Soledar to the ministry.
The Russian president made no mention of the Wagner Group’s role in the fighting, although Prigozhin’s forces have been leading the defense ministry’s troops in the region, which is located nine miles north of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Russia’s defense ministry on Friday credited its artillery, aviation and missile forces in the capture of Soledar.
The move prompted Russian billionaire Prigozhin to accuse the ministry of attempting to downplay the Wagner Group’s role in the capture of Soledar, and belittle its achievements.
Shortly after, the defense ministry issued a statement praising the “courageous and selfless actions” of the men hired by the paramilitary group.
In its latest assessment of the war in Ukraine, the ISW, a U.S.-based think tank, noted on Monday that Putin had credited his defense ministry live on state-controlled TV.
It was “likely a deliberate effort to undermine Prigozhin’s influence within the Russian information space, given that Putin has previously refrained from commenting on tactical advances in Ukraine,” the think tank said.
“Putin may have also sought to demonstrate he retains control over traditional Russian mass media, while Prigozhin continues to grow an audience on Telegram and other social media networks,” the ISW assessed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded on Monday to reports of an ongoing rift, shutting down the reports as “products of information manipulations.”
Peskov said Russia recognized both the defense ministry’s troops and Wagner fighters as heroes, and said “both of them will be forever in our memory.”
“As for any conflicts, these are mainly products of informational manipulations, which are, okay, sometimes arranged by our informational opponents, but sometimes our friends behave in such a way that such enemies are not needed,” he said.
“Everyone is fighting for their country. So this is how it should be viewed.”
Peskov’s statement “may have been tacitly aimed at Prigozhin, whose criticism of the Russian MoD is growing increasingly brazen,” the ISW said.
Ukraine meanwhile has continued to deny that Soledar has been seized completely by Russian forces. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, Serhiy Cherevatyi, reiterated during a television broadcast that Ukraine’s forces were holding out, local news outlet Ukrinform reported.
Prigozhin made headlines in the fall of 2022 for his sharp criticism of Russia’s defense ministry and its head, Sergei Shoigu, over setbacks for Moscow on the battlefield.
Vlad Mykhnenko, an expert in the post-communist transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the U.K.’s University of Oxford, previously told Newsweek that he believes Prigozhin senses the war is not going “according to plan” and that Putin is losing control.
Prigozhin could be “making back-up plans for the moment Putin decides to step down or is overthrown,” he said.
Newsweek has reached out to Russia’s foreign ministry for comment.