After dropping charges against the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian government released photos they said were from a raid of his home: Awards, piles of cash, a medical room, a photo of heads cut off, and a giant sledgehammer saying, "in case of important negotiations." There were also images of him in wigs and disguises.
"Russian state TV and Russian President Vladimir Putin are currently undertaking a campaign to destroy, number one, the reputation of Yevgeny Prigozhin. And number two, minimize and trivialize the contributions that the wider group made over the course of Russia's war in Ukraine," said George Barros, the geospatial intelligence team lead at Institute for the Study of War.
As Wagner recruitment ads and building signage get taken down and pro-Wagner websites are blocked, Barros says we're witnessing a competition for manpower.
"We know that the reason why Putin likely didn't charge the entire Wagner group with treason was because the Russian military has a crisis of combat power and they truly need every man that they can get. Therefore, Prigozhin is also competing over this limited human resource," said Barros.
On Thursday, Belarus' president, the face of a deal for Wagner being forced to move to Belarus, said the wealthy warlord was back in Russia.
Sean McFate is an expert on mercenaries and a former paramilitary himself. He regularly consults for the Defense Department and CIA. He says Prigozhin is still likely negotiating with Putin, and then some.
SCRIPPS NEWS' SASHA INGBER: Where's Prigozhin right now?
SEAN MCFATE: We don't know where he is. And he's also like Putin. He uses empty planes as a distraction, or uses it to send his lieutenants. It's very possible that Prigozhin is negotiating both with Putin and Zelenskyy, which is a classic tactic of mercenaries. They play rivals off each other. We see this throughout mercenary warfare in the Middle Ages and antiquity. There's a very good chance that Prigozhin wants Zelenskyy to pay him lots of money to either get off the battlefield, which would favor Zelenskyy, or perhaps even support the Ukrainian forces against Russia. I would imagine that if such an agreement is happening, U.S. intelligence services are advising Zelenskyy closely on it, too.
Prigozhin maintained secret communications with Ukrainian intelligence, and the Kremlin knew it, according to leaked records obtained by the Washington Post. But Putin's spokesperson insisted Thursday that the Kremlin is "not tracking" Prigozhin's whereabouts.
INGBER: Does Prigozhin have the tactics to stay alive, were there to be security services going after him despite this agreement?
MCFATE: Oh, absolutely. He has an army at his back, which makes him very political. And, you know, Putin could put a standing kill order on Prigozhin. But Prigozhin could put a standing kill order on Putin. And this time next year, both men may be killed.
Just where some 25,000 Wagner Group forces are today remains unclear. Some are said to still be in Ukraine, but not fighting.
"The absence of any Wagner Group forces fighting on the front lines should not be read as insubordination or desire to support the Russian state. They quite simply, they need to rearm and rest after having undertaken the brutal battle of Bakhmut," said Barros.
Last week, tents were spotted at an abandoned military base in Belarus and this week, in never-before-seen satellite images that Scripps News obtained, there now appears to be fencing suggesting ongoing construction.
INGBER: Is there any indication that this is for the Wagner forces, or for Russia's military?
GEORGE BARROS: Right now, it appears to be for Wagner Group forces. This particular facility is not an air base. There's no airfield. The main Russian line of effort for establishing a permanent military presence in Belarus has always been, at least going back to 2014, 2015, has been about establishing an air base.
Russia still needs Wagner fighters, despite the revolt.
INGBER: Would not having the Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine weaken Russia's effort to try to take the country?
MCFATE: Yes. Wagner Group is the second best army in Ukraine. They have won most, if not all, the fights in battles for Russia in Ukraine the past six months. Their departure marks a serious vulnerability to Russian war efforts in Ukraine.
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