The capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut by the Wagner paramilitary group has given Moscow a rare and very costly victory. But it has also exposed the Russian Army’s dependence on a brutal mercenary force commanded by an unpredictable leader.
That leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, announced on Thursday that Wagner forces would begin withdrawing from Bakhmut, raising questions about whether Russia’s military can hold the city, especially if Ukraine begins its long-anticipated counteroffensive.
“Now the Russian General Staff will have to find enough reserves to fill the resulting gap,” Dmitri Kuznets, a war analyst for Meduza, a Russian news website, said in response to written questions. “This is in addition to fending off the Ukrainian offensive, which will also require a significant number of reserves.”
Mr. Prigozhin said Thursday that his fighters would “get rest and get ready,” before receiving “a new task” to perform in Ukraine. It is not clear how many Wagner troops remain in Bakhmut.
American officials estimated in December that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 10,000 experienced volunteers and 40,000 former prisoners who were granted pardons in exchange for military service.
For many supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner group, with its harsh discipline and agile decision-making, has become a model for what the Russian Army, plagued by cumbersome bureaucracy, should look like.
Mr. Prigozhin has criticized Russia’s military leadership repeatedly. But Wagner and the Russian Army are also dependent on each other. While Mr. Prigozhin has some of the best assault troops fighting on the Russian side, the defense ministry holds vastly more weapons supplies, much to Mr. Prigozhin’s recent frustration.
In Ukraine, the Wagner group has sometimes served as an emergency force for Russia, engaging in battle when the situation appeared desperate. Weeks into the Russian invasion, Wagner troops helped capture the eastern town of Popasna, eventually allowing Russia to make further advances in the Donbas region. And Wagner’s grueling, bloody campaign in Bakhmut also allowed regular Russian forces to focus elsewhere, including on training additional troops and fortifying defenses.
Mr. Kuznets said that if Wagner troops are redeployed in Ukraine, they would likely be sent to areas surrounding Bakhmut or in southern Ukraine, an area that could be a focus of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
While the Russian military leadership might prefer not to rely on Wagner for assistance again, he said, Moscow’s lack of sufficient troops makes Wagner’s eventual redeployment in Ukraine “inevitable.”