Wagner mercenaries are returning to Russia from Belarus in large numbers suggesting that the deal to harbour the fighters has “collapsed”, analysts have disclosed.
The influx of the hardened veterans back into Russia could present a significant security threat to President Vladimir Putin whose position would appear weakened by any failure of the deal he struck with Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin following the 24 June mutiny.
Russian insiders have claimed that Wagner troops, whose numbers are estimated at 5,000 in Belarus, left on Tuesday with up to 600 men taken by bus back into western Russian provinces, some close to Moscow. Another tranche will follow on Sunday according to sources reported by the respected think tank, the Institute for the Study of War.
The deal to rebase Wagner was originally struck between Mr Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Mr Prigozhin shortly after the armed uprising.
But Wagner group sources reported that the departure came after President Lukashenko discovered that Russia would not be financing the mercenaries, with Belarus instead having to foot the bill.
ISW also reported that Wagner sources had told fighters to “keep in touch because new orders could come at any time” and that the majority of Wagner forces will “activate” at the end of this month.
Mr Prigozhin attended the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg in late July suggesting that he remains head of Wagner despite Mr Putin’s efforts to separate him from the group.
Recent Kremlin information attacks on the mercenary leader suggest that “Putin has recommitted to his original goal of destroying Prigozhin,” the ISW stated.
Another theory is that Wagner’s return to Russia may be to assist in its destruction or reintegration into Russia’s depleted armed forces. However, the majority of fighters remain loyal to both Prigozhin and Wagner.
The collapse of the deal “indicates that Putin has failed to decisively resolve issues posed by Prigozhin and Wagner” following the 24 June insurrection.
“Putin is likely still concerned about the threat that Prigozhin poses to his long-term goals,” the ISW report added.
Ukrainian forces meanwhile conducted a raid on the Russian-held east bank of the Dnipro river where they are understood to have temporarily seized the village of Kozachi Laheri.
Reports stated that 18 Russian soldiers had been killed after a group of around 50 Ukrainian special forces used fast boats to cross the river, which is downstream from the dam blown up in June.
The attack came after the British Ministry of Defence announced on Thursday that almost 1,000 Ukrainians had been trained by Royal Marines in beach raids and amphibious operations.
“This programme of training, delivered by elite British commandos, will support Ukraine to build its own distinct marine force and expand its capability to operate in a maritime environment,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
It is possible that Kyiv ordered the attack after intelligence revealed that Russian VDV airborne forces had been sent out of the area to deal with Ukraine's offensive further east and replaced by less capable mobilised troops.
A pro-Russia Telegram channel stated that 25 Russian soldiers were either killed or taken prisoner during the raid, including an officer named as Maj Tomov.
The captured soldiers were said to have been carrying maps and mobile phones that revealed information on local Russian positions.
Video footage showed a subsequent Ukraine bombardment around Kozachi Laheri. Russian media were quick to demonstrate on Wednesday that the town was still held by Moscow’s troops with television correspondents reporting from the outskirts.
It is the second significant raid across the Dnipro in two months after Ukraine forces temporarily held positions close to the town of Oleshky, about 20km from Kozachi Laheri.
It has been suggested that if Ukraine managed to capture both towns it would let commanders build a pontoon bridge across the Dnipro, allowing them to get armoured vehicles across, opening up a new front and a short route to Crimea.
There were also reports from Ukraine’s armed forces that stated Russian casualties since the invasion in February last year had now reached 250,000 dead and wounded.