Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin once again amplified his public rift with Russian leaders this week, saying the war in Ukraine had turned against him and the Kremlin risked facing a revolution.
In an interview that lasted over an hour with a prominent pro-Kremlin blogger, Prigozhin offered a startling – and perhaps somewhat honest – assessment of the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin estimated heavy casualties for his private military company in taking the town of Bakhmut this month, seen more as a symbolic victory than a strategic one. He also said that Russia’s goal of demilitarizing Ukraine had completely backfired and suggested that Russia should “change the top leadership”.
“At the start of the special military operation, let’s say they had 500 tanks. Now they have 5,000 tanks,” he said. “It turned out to be the opposite. We have militarized it to the nth degree.
The private military chief also hailed Ukraine’s military as one of the ‘strongest’ in the world and suggested that Kiev could retake territory across eastern Ukraine and possibly even the Crimean Peninsula during of the coming counter-offensive. He argued that the invasion, first ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin some 15 months ago to “denazify” Ukraine, has so far failed to produce significant results.
“Nothing works for us,” Prigozhin said. “The denazification of Ukraine that we were talking about made Ukraine a nation known all over the world.”
Prigozhin has repeatedly spoken out against warring generals in recent months and has paid no apparent political price for his frequent criticism.
However, pro-Russian blogger Konstantin Dolgov was fired the day after the interview with Prigozhin, according to Radio Free Europe.
Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Prigozhin’s broader aim was not to cast a bad image on Russia, but to criticize the conduct of the war through what Chief Wagner sees as a “clearer description of what’s going on”.
“He thinks a greater effort must be made to continue this war,” Graham said. “If anything, he would like to be more aggressive.”
Graham compared Prigozhin to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who also deployed fighters to Ukraine and sometimes criticized the way the war was fought.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin are unlikely to face big consequences for public comment given their positions overseeing military units – as long as they contain their criticisms and don’t attack Putin or the war itself, analysts say .
The Wagner Group, which has been fighting for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine since October, paid a heavy price for taking the town and handing Russia its first significant victory since the summer.
During the months-long battle, Prigozhin says he lost about 20,000 soldiers, about half of whom were his employees and the other half were convicts recruited from the prisons. Many captive soldiers were thrown onto the Ukrainian lines to make gradual advances.
Prigozhin became known for his fiery rants during the Battle of Bakhmut, many of which tore Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the commander overseeing the war in Ukraine, for not providing enough ammunition and for cowardice among conventional Russian troops.
Chief Wagner was the first to announce the victory at Bakhmut last weekend, which was followed by a quick statement from the Russian Defense Ministry and then Putin himself, who named the mercenary company with his army for their part in taking the city.
Prigozhin seems to have grown much bolder since taking on Bakhmut. In the interview, Prigozhin called his army the toughest in the world, ranking above the Russian army, which he calls the second strongest.
Later in the interview, he called out Shoigu and other Russian elites by name, this time accusing them of protecting their children from war and having “fat, carefree lives” while others suffer.
George Beebe, director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Prigozhin had big political ambitions in Russia and was setting himself up as a populist leader.
“I think his goal is to present himself as a contrast and an alternative to what he describes as corrupt Russian military leadership,” Beebe said. “They exploit Russian taxpayers’ money for their own benefit and for the benefit of their children.”
“Wagner, on the other hand, we are real men. We are there fighting, we are dying, it is we who are spending blood for the good of the fatherland,” he continued, assessing Prigozhin’s thought. “I think that’s what it’s about in its larger message.”
Prigozhin’s remarks this week came as pro-Ukrainian militias marched on Belgorod, a region of Russia bordering Ukraine.
The Russian military battled resistance groups, who described themselves as Russian citizens seeking to overthrow the Kremlin, for two days in what became a disturbing incursion into Russian territory.
On Telegram, Prigozhin posted statements criticizing the Russian Defense Ministry for failing to secure the borders.
Prigozhin said in the interview that Russia could face another revolution similar to 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the monarchy and introduced communism, because of wartime corruption.
“The only thing this dichotomy can lead to is a revolution,” he said. “In the beginning the soldiers will rise up and after that their relatives will.”
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