Officials believe Yevgeny Prigozhin – owner of the private military Wagner Group – is vying for natural resources to help fund Russia’s war.
A close ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is interested in taking control of salt and gypsum from mines near the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, according to a White House official.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the founder of Russia’s most powerful mercenary force, the Wagner Group. Wagner has played a key role in the Russian offensive against Bakhmut.
There were indications that monetary motives were driving Russia’s and Prigozhin’s “obsession” with Bakhmut, the US official said.
The United States has previously accused Russian mercenaries of exploiting natural resources in Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and elsewhere to help fund Moscow’s war in Ukraine – a charge Russia rejected as “anti-Russian rage”.
In a video released over new year, Prigozhin was filmed visiting a basement near Bakhmut filled with the bodies of his fighters, many of them convicts, who had been killed during the bitter fighting for the city, a key Russian objective since the summer.
Prigozhin has said his fighters have sometimes spent weeks attempting to capture a single house in Bakhmut.
Last month, Ukrainian troops fighting in the area told the Guardian that the eastern city lacked any obvious strategic value and questioned why Russia was so focused on what Prigozhin himself dubbed the “Bakhmut meat grinder”.
“The only strategy I can see at this point is that they want to take the city so they can claim some kind of victory after a year that has seen so many losses,” said Sasha, a member of Ukraine’s 24th mechanised brigade.
“We’ve noticed in the past two weeks an increase in shelling and infantry attacks as if they are in a rush to take Bakhmut. That also means that they are suffering ever greater losses. They are just throwing in meat.”
Out of its force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, Wagner has sustained more than 4,100 deaths and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut, the US official said on Thursday.
The White House said late last month that the Wagner Group took delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, a sign of the group’s expanding role in the conflict.