Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
May 24, 2023, 5:30pm ET
Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.
Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.
Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4 pm ET on May 24. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 25 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.
Discussions regarding reported Russian losses in Bakhmut have saturated the pro-war information space and are drowning out any remaining positive informational effect resulting from the city’s capture. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed during an interview with Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov on May 23 that Wagner lost 10,000 convict recruits and 10,000 full-time professional Wagner fighters killed in action over the course of the Battle for Bakhmut. Prigozhin specifically noted that Wagner had recruited 50,000 prisoners, 20 percent of whom (10,000) died in fighting for Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers immediately seized on the reported losses, thereby shifting the overall Russian conversation away from discussions of the significance of the capture of Bakhmut and towards amplifying speculation surrounding the reported losses. The nationalist pro-war faction, exemplified by the views of former Russian officer Igor Girkin, commented on the massive scale of the reported losses and speculated that real losses may be much higher. Russian politician Viktor Alksnis simply remarked that the Soviet Army lost far fewer soldiers (15,051) in nine years in Afghanistan. Girkin stated that he believes that Wagner’s actual losses could be more than 1.5 times higher than Prigozhin’s claims and pointed out that of the 50,000 recruits Wagner received from prisons, 10,000 died in action and 26,000 reportedly received pardons and returned to Russia, leaving 14,000 prison recruits unaccounted for. Girkin suggested that a large portion of these 14,000 unaccounted-for prison recruits may have also been killed in action and claimed that Wagner has likely suffered more than 40,000 killed in action. Girkin suggested that Prigozhin “keep [his] mouth shut” and stop talking about “wild losses for a very insignificant result.” Another Russian milblogger, by contrast, praised Prigozhin for being open about the scale of losses and stated that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would have hidden such figures.
The overall Russian information space response to the capture of Bakhmut has fixated on attributing responsibility for its capture and speculating on the associated costs of the operation, thus depriving the Russian MoD of the oxygen necessary to positively frame the city’s capture. As ISW reported on May 22 factions within the pro-war information space immediately began arguing over whether Wagner or regular Russian units and commanders should receive medals and commendations for operations in Bakhmut. Prigozhin’s claims about Wagner’s losses in Bakhmut have similarly become a distinct point of tension in the information space and have come to define the predominant discourse about Russia’s entire campaign in Bakhmut. In shifting the conversation towards claimed Wagner losses, Prigozhin has largely succeeded in further depriving the Russian MoD of the opportunity to claim informational victory over Bakhmut and will likely continue to define and lead conversations on Bakhmut going forward but at the cost of highlighting the huge losses his own forces suffered for a negligible gain.
Prigozhin is likely using his heightened profile following the capture of Bakhmut to intensify his attacks against the Russian military establishment and elites. Prigozhin stated in his May 23 interview with Dolgov that the Russian military leadership has so far failed to achieve the main objectives of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin blamed his usual targets, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, for being the main problem within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and for blocking support and supplies to Wagner. Prigozhin also criticized Shoigu’s son-in-law and daughter for being the stereotypical children of Russian elite whose life experience is in dramatic opposition to those fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin warned that the Russian elite is fostering a situation that could end up like the revolution of 1917, in which soldiers and their loved ones stood up against the Russian government. Prigozhin threatened that the Russian public may become violent towards the Russian elite, referencing mobs with pitchforks and alluding to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a string of politically motivated mob assassinations in France in 1572. Prigozhin’s somewhat subtle and purposefully obscure threats of violence represent an inflection in his longstanding feuds with the Russian military establishment and select elite figures.
Prigozhin is also using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Prigozhin reiterated that the Wagner Group is the best army in the world and argued that the conventional Russian army is second to Wagner. Prigozhin claimed that 6,000 Wagner personnel can each manage his own company worth of personnel and that Wagner could therefore command a force of 600,000 personnel, roughly twice the estimated number of Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin suggested that he has previously asked for 200,000 personnel to command in Ukraine and argued that if he had such a force then Wagner could advance from 50 to 150km in different directions. Prigozhin claimed that he did not receive this force because of fears that such a force would allow him to dictate terms and theoretically “come to Moscow in tanks.” Prigozhin also advocated for Russian Deputy-Minister-of-Defense-for-Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizinstev to replace Shoigu as Defense Minister and for former overall theater commander and alleged Wagner ally Army General Sergey Surovikin to replace Gerasimov as Chief of the General Staff.
Prigozhin is also likely doubling down on his attempts to establish himself as a Russian totalitarian figure who could achieve military victory in Ukraine. Prigozhin called for complete martial law, several subsequent waves of mobilization, and wide-scale economic mobilization of Russian industry to save Russia. Prigozhin also suggested that Russia should become a totalitarian regime akin to North Korea and close all borders for a certain number of years to achieve victory in Ukraine. Prigozhin has routinely crafted an image to resonate with a constituency interested in the ideology of Russia’s national superiority, Soviet brutalist strength, and Stalinist totalitarian control. Prigozhin is likely advocating for incredibly radical policy approaches to the war in Ukraine to contrast himself with Putin’s relatively risk-averse decision-making approach to the war. ISW has previously assessed that Prigozhin harbors serious political ambitions and intends to cement himself as the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist community. The capture of Bakhmut has likely emboldened Prigozhin to pursue those ambitions in a more explicit manner regardless of the internal upheaval that it may cause or the danger it may place him in with the Kremlin.
The Kremlin continues efforts to portray Russia as having significant diplomatic partnerships. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to attendees of the 11th International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues in Moscow on May 24 to deliver boilerplate rhetoric accusing the West of generating global instability and calling on Asian, African, and Latin American states to form a multipolar world order. Putin later attended the Eurasian Economic Forum in Moscow alongside Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, and Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan. Putin also met with Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (the Serbian political entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Dodik demonstratively supported the Russian narrative about the war in Ukraine by stating that Russia was forced to launch the “special military operation” and that the war is a clash against the West. The Kremlin has previously leveraged energy and military cooperation with Republika Srpska to attempt to spread Russian influence in the Balkans, although Russian influence with its other notable partner in the region, Serbia, appears to be waning. The Kremlin has used previous international forums and meetings with heads of state to portray Russia as having robust international partnerships and to advocate for the formation of a potential anti-Western coalition. Putin most notably tried and failed to secure a no-limits bilateral partnership with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late March and align China with Russia in Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West. The nominal support of several post-Soviet states and the explicit support of a small constituent entity is likely far less than what the Kremlin is hoping to achieve with this wider diplomatic effort.
Russian sources continued to respond to the limited all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) raid into Belgorod Oblast. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium meeting that Western Military District Border Guards expelled all pro-Ukrainian forces from Belgorod Oblast, killing 70 personnel and destroying an unspecified number of vehicles and armored vehicles. Some milbloggers criticized the ineffectiveness of the Russian border guards and questioned why they would allow the RDK and LSR to break through to Russian territory and mine the border areas over the course of two days. Other milbloggers criticized Russian forces for not maintaining “normal communication and interactions” with border guards, which created difficulties in repelling RDK and LSR forces. One milblogger praised Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov and claimed that he rose to the occasion during the raid by solving problems that civilian officials usually do not have to solve. Gladkov, however, said that he has “more questions for the MoD” and that lessons needed to be learned from the mistakes in Belgorod Oblast. Another milblogger criticized Belgorod Oblast civilian authorities for allowing civilians to live one kilometer away from the “front line” and questioned why authorities chose not to relocate civilians until after the situation improved.
The New York Times reported on May 24 that unnamed US officials said that the US intelligence community assesses with low confidence that unknown Ukrainian elements with unknown connections to Ukraine’s leadership were responsible for the May 3 drone attacks on the Kremlin. ISW had previously assessed that the attack was a Russian false flag operation on May 3. ISW has no additional information about this incident.
- Discussions regarding reported Russian losses in Bakhmut have saturated the pro-war information space and are drowning out any remaining positive informational effect resulting from the city’s capture.
- The overall Russian information space response to the capture of Bakhmut has fixated on attributing responsibility for its capture and speculating on the associated costs of the operation, thus depriving the Russian MoD of the oxygen necessary to positively frame the city’s capture.
- Prigozhin is likely using his heightened profile following the capture of Bakhmut to intensify his attacks against the Russian military establishment and elites. Prigozhin is also using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to portray Russia as having significant diplomatic partnerships.
- Russian sources continued to respond to the limited all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) raid into Belgorod Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks on the outskirts of Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continue to target Ukrainian positions in southern Ukraine with FAB-500 aerial bombs.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on May 24 that more than 120,000 Russian personnel have undergone training since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- The Russian Federation Council approved a law on holding elections in territories under martial law on.
Hard to understand Putin's tolerance of Prigozhin. It could be a similar dynamic to Hitler, who actively encouraged dissention between his subordinates in order to encourage them to excel, and to avoid collusion between them that might challenge his own authority. On the other hand if everyone is aware Putin has limited time left to live, they will understand Prigozhin's antics as part of the succession struggle and not a direct challenge to Putin himself.