Putin's re-shuffle of top generals will most likely hamper Wagner Group's combat capabilities in the future

Rainer Pihlakas
Jan 16, 2023

Keywords: Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Valery Gerasimov, Sergei Surovikin, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, ISR, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Ukraine, Russia, conflict.

Gerasimov’s appointment as the theatre commander likely does not affect Russian military performance in Ukraine.The elevation of Gerasimov over Surovikin was rather a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle.The battle of Soledar is likely to remain the Wagner Group’s most significant military achievement in Ukraine.

FIGURE 1. Relationship graph between the key players mentioned in this article, generated with SensusQ Winning Mind software.

Another Putin’s general shuffle

The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on January 11 that Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov will take over as theatre commander in Ukraine. The Russian MoD officially announced Gerasimov as Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces and named three deputies under Gerasimov’s command, one of them being the previous theatre commander in Ukraine from October 8 to January 11 Army General Sergei Surovikin.[1][2]

Prigozin and Surovikin have had good relations, which may stem from 2017 and 2019, when Surovikin was deployed to Syria as a commander of the Russian Armed Forces. Jevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group has also been operating in Syria since 2015. Associates of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny have claimed Sergey Surovikin's wife Anna's company regularly receives money from the billionaire's company Gennady Timchenko, who also worked in Syria.[3] Is quite likely, that Surovikin has supported Timchenko’s firms operating in Syria with security services directly or in cooperation with the Wagner Group, which could possibly be the origin of the good relationship between Surovikin and Prigozin.

Gerasimov’s appointment as the theatre commander likely does not affect the Kremlin's attempt to improve Russian military performance in Ukraine much, if at all. General Gerasimov, as the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, First Deputy Minister of Defence and presumably one of the architects of the invasion exercised overall control over all operations of the Russian Armed Forces, including the "special military operation in Ukraine". Therefore, the aforementioned appointment does not grant him any essential means or tools, which would help him to significantly change the pace of the war in Ukraine.

Gerasimov’s elevation over Surovikin was rather a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle. The Russian MoD and Wagner Group financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have feuded throughout 2022 over Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin has been increasingly critical of the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war since late 2022. Surovikin, the previous theatre commander in Ukraine, was a public favourite of Prigozhin, and Ukrainian intelligence have reported that Surovikin is a rival of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

General Surovikin, as theatre commander, was probably able to prioritize the supply of weapons, equipment and ammunition to the Wagner Group to the regular units of the Russian armed forces operating in Ukraine. There have been reports of increased tension between conventional Russian mobilized personnel and Wagner Group personnel, which begun to receive equipment in priority over the mobilized Russian Armed Forces.[4] Consequently, the rise of Gerasimov over Surovikin will degrade the combat capabilities of the Wagner Group and increase the capabilities of regular Russian military units.

FIGURE 2. Valeriy Gerasimov (left) and Sergey Surovikin (right)

Wagner group role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Wagner Group reportedly flew in more than 400 contractors from the Central African Republic in mid- to late-January 2022 on a mission to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and members of his government, and thus to prepare the ground for Russia to take control for the Russian invasion of Ukraine [5] In late March, it was expected that the number of Wagner PMCs in Ukraine would be tripled from around 300 at the beginning of the invasion to at least 1,000, and that they were focused on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.[6] In July 2022 the UK Ministry of Defence stated in an intelligence report that Russia was considering recruiting prisoners into the Wagner Group.[7] In early January 2023, an US estimate put the number of Wagner PMC nearly 50 000 mercenaries, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from prisons.[8]

In the beginning of December an interview with a Wagner POW and Russian convict, Vyacheslav Izmailov, who stated that Wagner did not keep any of his promises and, after two weeks of training, the prisoner recruits were immediately thrown into the front line where the mortality rate was extremely high. Izmailov stated that 70 Wagner convicts of his 90-person platoon were killed.[9] According a source, Wagner reportedly had sustained more than 4,100 deaths and 10,000 wounded by the end of the previous year.[10] According another source the total number of prisoners removed from the Russian Federal Penitentiary System during 2022 was 38 244 and removed from the record, which were likely KIA, WIA, MIA and PoW, were 29 534.[11] Furthermore, Wagner's group itself has executed at least ten people who refused to fight in Ukraine.[12] In the mid December Wagner mercenaries captured Yakovlivka village north-east to Soledar, which created a tactical advantage to storm the Soledar.[13] On 13th in January was reported that storming Soledar has cost Russians, including Wagner force, huge number of live force.[14] It doesn't matter if the actual death toll of the Wagner Group is true or not. The Wagner group urgently needs to rebuild its forces after heavy losses, mainly prisoners, but rumours of personnel executions and high casualty rates circulating on social media have most likely spread even among Russian prisoners. Consequently, Prigozhins recruitment efforts have stalled. A sign of the lack of personnel is the fact that Prigozhin also considered recruiting female prisoners.[15]

FIGURE 3. Yevgeny Prigozhin recruiting prisoners to join Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine.

Prigozhin's status in Russia

Yevgeny Prigozhin has been a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin for years. Prigozhin provided Putin with legal catering services and illegal Internet trolling and Wagner Group mercenary services in a number of countries in Europe, Africa and South America. There is no doubt that Prigozhin is loyal to Putin and is ready to execute all orders received from his master.

On the other hand, Prigozhin has confronted with many other powerful Russian politicians, military servicemen and oligarchs. After the Russian troops retreat from Kupyansk and Izyum Prigozhin declared, that "All these bastards ought to be sent to the front barefoot with just a submachine gun,” referring to senior Russian military leaders.[16] Prigozhin also has called members of the Putin-controlled Russian parliament "useless" and said that the "deputies should go to the front", adding that "Those people who have been talking from tribunes for years need to start doing something."[17] In December Prigozhin stated that Russia needs to confiscate luxury possessions and accommodations from elites who ignore or do not support the war effort out of fear of losing their privileged lifestyles, referring to Russian oligarchs.[18]

In September 2022, Prigozhin finally admitted to founding the Wagner mercenary group, which he had denied over the years.[19] Since then, Prigozhin has become extremely popular in Russia as the owner of the “most efficient military power in the world”, as he himself declared after the fall of Soledar.[20][21] (Figure 3) Furthermore, Prigozhin has been suspected of intending to form a party and Russian media has speculated about him rallying to Russia’s president’s seat in the upcoming 2024 elections.[22] Whether the truth or not, but Vladimir Putin, who has the KGB background, is a paranoid person who values first and foremost loyalty. Putin's many advisors, who are at the same time Prigozhin's enemies, probably have taken advantage of this character trait of Putin and exaggerated these rumours and Prigozhin's intentions, which may have led to Putin's intention to reduce the status and power of Prigozhin in Russia. Putin’s decision is probably supported by the fact that the Wagner group has depleted its human resources in Donbass and cannot support Putin’s intention in Ukraine as much as it could a few months ago.

FIGURE 4. Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) promoting Wagner’s role in capturing Soledar.


Yevgeny Prigozhin, as the founder and owner of the Wagner group, gained enormous popularity in Russia in the second half of the previous year as the sole person who is supporting “Russian interests” and defending the “Russian world.” [23] General Sergei Surovikin is a close ally of Prigozhin, who likely has provided the Wagner group with the military equipment and ammunition needed to operate effectively in Donbass. Putin probably decided to hamper Prigozhin’s popularity in Russia, as he may perceive him as a threat to his own position. Therefore, Putin replaced general Surovikin with general Gerasimov, who is a fierce enemy of Prigozhin and is most likely doing his best to prevent the Wagner group and Yevgeny Prigozhin from gaining popularity of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin likely won’t be completely marginalized, as Putin needs his other services, but the battle of Soledar in Ukraine is likely to remain the Wagner Group's greatest military achievement in Ukraine.


[1] Минобороны России. Jan 2023. [Online]

[2] Сводка Минобороны России о ходе проведения специальной военной операции на территории Украины (по состоянию на 8 октября 2022 г.). Oct 2022. [Online]

[3] Sergey Surovikin earns money from the war by helping Vladimir Putin's friends. Nov 2022. [Online]


[5] Volodymyr Zelensky: Russian mercenaries ordered to kill Ukraine’s president. Feb 2022. [Online]

[6] More Russian Mercenaries Deploying to Ukraine to Take On Greater Role in War. Mar 2022. [Online]

[7] UK Ministry Of Defence. Jul 2022. [Online]

[8] Putin secretly pardoned convicts recruited by Wagner to fight in Ukraine. Jan 2023. [Online]

[9] В украинских телеграм-каналах опубликовали интервью бывшего заключенного, завербованного в ЧВК Вагнера. Dec 2022. [Online]

[10] Putin ally fighting to control salt and gypsum mines near Ukraine city of Bakhmut, says US. Jan 2023. [Online]

[11] из одной зоны в другую Jan 2023. [Online]

[12] Экс-командир убитого кувалдой Нужина рассказал о 10 казнях вагнеровцев. Dec 2022. [Online]

[13] Военкор Ярем. Dec 2022. [Online]

[14] "Оттуда уже не эвакуируешься: все в трупах", – Z-каналы признались, что Соледар не взят. Jan 2023. [Online]

[15] Пресс-служба Пригожина. Dec 2022. [Online]

[16] Reading the Tea Leaves of Russia’s Pro-War ‘Z-Universe’. Oct 2022. [Online]

[17] Пресс-служба компании "Конкорд". Oct 2022. [Online]

[18] Colonelcassad: Чем быстрее отберут - тем лучше. Dec 2022. [Online]

[19] Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin admits founding Wagner mercenary group. Sep 2022. [Online]

[20] Пресс-служба Пригожина. Jan 2023. [Online]

[21] Кепка Пригожина. Jan 2023.

[22] Евгений Пригожин (ЧВК "Вагнер") - будущий президент России? Nov 2022. [Online]

[23] GREY ZONE: Небольшой репортаж о «Группе Вагнера» с их постоянной базы в одном из южных регионов России. Dec 2022. [Online]

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