Vladimir Putin is scaling down the influential Wagner Group amid fears they have become too powerful, reports say.
The mercenary organisation, which consists of ex-convicts, has played a decisive role in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But according to sources, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been ordered to significantly reduce his 50,000-strong army, and replace them with 300,000 ordinary soldiers.
The Russian president reportedly fears Prigozhin’s influence in Ukraine could outstrip his own and make him vulnerable if a leadership bid was launched.
It comes amid claims Prigozhin, recently demoted Russian general Sergey Surovikin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov are plotting against Putin.
Russia expert Bruce Jones told The Mirror the reasons behind the decision to scale down.
He said: ‘President Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin have been very close contacts and allies for decades.
‘This appears to be a parting of the way after Prigozhin had been openly critical, even abusive to senior military figures in the regular forces. It is believed that by implication his criticism of the conduct of the regular forces and their commanders is a slight against Putin, who now sees him as a potential rival.’
The news comes amid warnings from Nato that Putin has started throwing ‘thousands and thousands more troops’ into Ukraine.
The current epicentre of fighting in the war centres around the bombed-out city of Bakhmut.
Putin is treating the city as a prime objective despite the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) saying it holds ‘limited operational value’.
Both British and American intelligence suggest Russia is suffering heavy losses due to the use of poorly trained recruits as well as weak coordination.
The end of this month – February 24 – will mark one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
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