May 15, 2023
Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin offered to disclose the locations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Bakhmut. The Washington Post reported on May 15 that Prigozhin offered the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) information about Russian troop positions in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut, and two Ukrainian unnamed officials confirmed that Prigozhin had spoken to GUR officials on numerous occasions. GUR officials reportedly rejected Prigozhin’s offer because they did not trust Prigozhin, and some documents indicate that Kyiv suspects that the Kremlin is aware of Prigozhin’s communication with Ukrainian intelligence. The Washington Post reported that Prigozhin urged Ukrainian officials to attack Russian forces and revealed the problems that the Russian forces are facing with morale and ammunition stocks. The Washington Post published an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 13 about GUR Chief Major General Kyrylo Budanov’s interactions with Prigozhin and his operatives in Africa in which Zelensky did not confirm Ukraine’s contacts with Prigozhin.
The reports of Prigozhin’s offers to cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence triggered a mixed response within Russia. Prigozhin originally responded to Zelensky’s interview on May 14, sarcastically stating that he can “confirm this information” because Wagner “has nothing to hide from foreign special services” and that he and Budanov are “still in Africa.” Prigozhin’s later accused The Washington Post of spreading fake information and claimed that unnamed figures warned him about the efforts to discredit him using fake information. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations on May 15 and stated that, although he cannot comment on the information, it “looks like yet another hoax.” Russian milbloggers – including one of Prigozhin’s enemies, former Russian officer Igor Girkin – claimed that they do not believe that Prigozhin would cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence. State Duma Parliamentarian Viktor Sobolev warned that mobilized servicemen who decide to join the ranks of Wagner private military company (PMC) will face 10 to 15 years in prison because Wagner is an illegal armed formation within Russia. It is unclear if Sobolev’s comments were made in response to the allegations, since Sobolev is an avid critic of Prigozhin and the Wagner forces.
Prigozhin’s reported efforts to cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence would have been part of his feud with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rather than an attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin. ISW assessed on March 12 that Prigozhin is competing with the Russian MoD for Putin’s favor but had unintentionally alarmed Putin with his military-political ambitions. Prigozhin’s reported outreach to Ukranian intelligence would likely have been part of an effort to win Putin’s favor, in fact, by facilitating a rapid Wagner victory in Bakhmut while harming Russian conventional forces behind the scenes. Prigozhin recently retracted his May 9 comments that indirectly mocked Putin, further indicating that Prigozhin is aware of his dependance on Putin and does not mean to antagonize him.
The allegations are unlikely to cause the Kremlin to remove Prigozhin in the near term but can contribute to efforts to discredit Prigozhin. The Kremlin likely suspects or is aware of Prigozhin’s reported communications with Ukrainian intelligence and likely was not blindsided by The Washington Post report or the leaked US intelligence documents. Russian officials had reportedly threatened Prigozhin with treason if he were to act on his attempt to blackmail the MoD into providing him more ammunition by threatening to withdraw from Bakhmut. The Kremlin is likely preparing mechanisms to discredit Prigozhin as a traitor. Unnamed Kremlin sources revealed that the Russian Presidential Administration is preparing an information operation to publicly discredit Prigozhin but noted that the Kremlin is unlikely to threaten Prigozhin while Wagner forces are on the frontlines. Prigozhin commands the Wagner forces in Donbas, and his removal would disrupt the Russian lines in Bakhmut – a risk that Putin is unlikely to take. The Kremlin is also unable easily to publicly remove and replace Prigozhin as the de facto head of Wagner because Wagner is an independent company and Prigozhin holds no official position in the Russian government. Removing Prigozhin from his control of Wagner would ironically require asserting direct Kremlin control of the mercenary group from which Putin has been at pains to maintain formal distance.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged limited Ukrainian battlefield successes during recent localized counterattacks in and around Bakhmut. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 15 that the Ukrainian forces made unspecified advances in and around Bakhmut in the past several days. Malyar added that Russian forces are deploying airborne (VDV) forces to defend Bakhmut’s flanks, presumably from other areas of the front. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi characterized the localized Ukrainian counterattacks as the first successes in Ukraine’s overall defense of Bakhmut and noted that this operation must be perceived as only a partial success. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated on May 14 that Ukrainian forces advanced 150-600 meters in various directions in the Bakhmut area and that Russian forces continue efforts to complete the capture of Bakhmut and defend the occupied territories.
Russian milbloggers uniformly attacked a proposal for “military censorship,” further indicating that the community is highly motivated to defend its privileged position within the Russian information space. State Duma Deputy Viktor Sobolev proposed on May 15 that military correspondents’ reports about the situation in Ukraine should be subject to “military censorship” and that the lack of censorship has led to the spread of false information and panic. Russian milbloggers widely criticized Sobolev for the supposed illegality and impracticality of the proposal, arguing that “military censorship” would be incongruous with Russia’s need to fill the information space with pro-Russian sources against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. State Duma Deputy Oleg Matveychev amplified an article by Russian political scientist Pavel Danilin on May 14 accusing the Russian milbloggers of promoting panicky false stories about Russian retreats and problems with the Russian MoD. Danilin suggested that the milbloggers‘ actions constitute acts of high treason and stated that “during the Great Patriotic War, those who [sowed] panic … were put against the wall.” Russian milblogger and Human Rights Council member Alexander “Sasha” Kots refuted Danilin’s points and launched a series of critiques against Matveychev that other milbloggers amplified. Russian milbloggers in both instances highlighted their alleged achievements and the importance of the “patriotic segment of Telegram” in bringing attention to acute problems and moving Russia closer to victory.
Select Russian officials have previously called for the censorship of Telegram and the milbloggers, although ISW assesses that Putin is unlikely to approve such a measure because the Kremlin is attempting to use the wider ultranationalist community’s established networks to recruit volunteers and generate social support for the war. The rapid and unified response from milbloggers suggests that the community perceives itself as a unitary civil society entity, one interested in defending its increasingly singular privilege in being able to criticize the conduct of the Russian war in Ukraine despite its internal factions and disagreements.
The Russian MoD claimed that it intercepted a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile for the first time on May 15. The MoD made this claim on the third day of four days of claimed Ukrainian Storm Shadow strikes against the Russian military assets in Luhansk City, roughly 80-100 kilometers behind the frontline. A Russian milblogger expressed concern that Ukraine’s use of the missile can severely impact the situation on the frontlines because the only way Russian forces can counter the Storm Shadows is to destroy the aircraft carrying the missiles.
The Kremlin has reportedly banned high-ranking officials from resigning during the war in Ukraine, likely in an attempt to maintain stability within domestic security organs, government bodies, and the Russian military command. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Isotrii (iStories) reported on May 15 that a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and sources close to an unnamed regional governor and the presidential administration stated that the Kremlin threatened civil servants in security organs and government bodies with criminal prosecution for trying to defy the ban. The Kremlin reportedly instituted the ban because many officials wanted to leave their positions after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, although iStories’ sources emphasized that the informal and illegal nature of the ban may allow for exceptions. The Kremlin may be attempting to stop Russian officials from resigning in protest to advance their own objectives. ISW previously reported that former Central Military District (CMD) commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin and Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky reportedly resigned due to intense public criticism and in protest of conditions at the front, respectively. Teplinsky likely used the fallout from his resignation to advocate for a leading military command position in Ukraine, a scenario that the Kremlin may attempt to avoid in the future by applying the reported ban more broadly.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on May 14 and 15 confirming the provision of more Western military aid. The Ukrainian and French governments issued a joint statement on May 15 announcing that France will train and equip “several” Ukrainian battalions with “tens” of armored vehicles and light tanks, including the AMX-10RC. The joint statement reiterated that the French government would continue providing political, financial, humanitarian, and military aid to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” The UK government confirmed on May 15 that Sunak will announce another round of military aid to Ukraine, including the provision of unspecified long-range attack drones with ranges of over 200 kilometers, and will deliver them to Ukraine over the coming months. Sunak announced that the UK will begin developing a program to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets and will begin training an initial cohort of pilots over the summer.
- Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin offered to disclose the locations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian officials acknowledged limited Ukrainian battlefield successes during recent localized counterattacks in and around Bakhmut.
- Russian milbloggers uniformly attacked a proposal for “military censorship,” further indicating that the community is highly motivated to defend its privileged position within the Russian information space.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that it intercepted a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile for the first time on May 15.
- The Kremlin has reportedly banned high-ranking officials from resigning during the war in Ukraine, likely in an attempt to maintain stability within domestic security organs, government bodies, and the Russian military command.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on May 14 and 15 confirming the provision of more Western military aid.
- Russian sources claimed that Russian forces captured Masyutivka, Kharkiv Oblast and established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Oskil River, but ISW has observed no visual confirmation of these claims.
- Russian forces continued to launch ground assaults in and around Bakhmut and conducted limited offensive operations near Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian intelligence reported that approximately 152,000 Russian military personnel in southern Ukraine continue defensive efforts ahead of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian authorities continue efforts to take advantage of migrant labor and incentivize foreigners into contract military service.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to set conditions to forcibly relocate Ukrainians from occupied territories to Russia.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko received a briefing from Belarusian generals on May 15 following recent speculation about his possible illness or death.