The head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group resumes a recurring strategy this week: lash out at Russia’s top military commanders for the failures in the war in Ukraine. That is something only a few can do publicly without facing reprisals from the Kremlin.
The comments of Yevgeny Prigozhin exposed his long-standing enmity with the Defense Ministry.
This time, however, the criticism comes at a time when Moscow was boasting a rare and much-needed victory in the 15-month war in Ukraine, when Prigozhin and his fighters raised a Russian flag in the eastern city of Bakhmut. after a long and bloody battle.
He turned that triumphant moment into an opportunity soon after to complain about Russian failures in the Ukraine.
Here’s a look at the role of Prigozhin, 61, and his Wagner Group in the war:
What did Prigozhin say?
Using direct and profane language during a nearly 80-minute video interview Tuesday with a pro-Kremlin political strategist, Prigozhin said that “somehow nothing is working for us” in Ukraine.
He spoke of the Kremlin’s position at the start of the war in February 2022, when President Vladimir Putin tried to justify the invasion by falsely claiming that it was a campaign against “Nazis”, despite the fact that the President of Ukraine is a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust and heads a democratically elected, Western-backed government.
“We came abruptly (to Ukraine), we walked with our boots on all over Ukraine in search of Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we eliminated as many as we could.”detailed Prigozhin, citing withdrawals from areas around Kiev and the southern city of Jershon.
Russia did not succeed in “demilitarizing” Ukraine, one of the goals set by Putin from the first day of the invasion, but instead made the kyiv army “one of the strongest” in the world with the highest quality equipment and training.
Prigozhin said that at Bakhmut he lost about 20,000 men from his private army.
What is Prigozhin’s background?
Prigozhin he was convicted of robbery and assault in 1981 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. After his release, she opened a restaurant in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It was then that she met Putin, who was the city’s deputy mayor.
Prigozhin used that connection to develop a catering business and obtained lucrative contracts from the Russian government that earned him the nickname of “Putin’s chef”. He later branched out into other areas, including the media and an infamous internet “troll factory” for which the United States accused him of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
In January, Prigozhin admitted to having founded, directed and financed the shadowy company Grupo Wagner.
Where has the Wagner Group operated?
Wagner was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine shortly after a separatist conflict broke out there. in April 2014in the weeks following Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula.
While backing a separatist insurgency in Donbas, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, Russia has denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Involving private contractors in the fight it allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of denial.
Prigozhin’s company was called the Wagner Group after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel in the special forces of the Russian army. Soon established a reputation for brutality and cruelty.
Wagner’s staff were also deployed In Syria, where Russia supported the government of President Bashar Assad in a civil war. In Libya, fought alongside the forces of commander Khalifa Hafter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigozhin is said to have used Wagner’s deployment in Syria and African countries to get lucrative mining contracts. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in January that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to finance operations in Ukraine.
Some Russian media alleged that Wagner was involved in the 2018 murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic investigating the group’s activities. Such murders remain unsolved.
What is Wagner’s reputation?
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner’s mercenaries of violate human rights throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”, and of perpetrating “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
A video has come to light that purports to show some of the activities that have contributed to Wagner’s fearsome reputation.
A video posted online in 2017 showed a group of armed individuals, allegedly Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian and beating him to death with a sledgehammer before mutilating and burning her body. The Russian authorities ignored requests from the media and rights activists for the incident to be investigated.
In 2022, another video showed a former Wagner contractor killed with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was repatriated. Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin did nothing.
What is your role in Ukraine?
Wagner has assumed an increasingly evident role in the war, as Russian regular troops have suffered great attrition and lost territory in humiliating defeats.
Prigozhin toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising reprieves if they survived a half-year’s tour of duty on the front lines with Wagner.
In this week’s interview, Prigozhin asserted that had recruited 50,000 convicts, of which about 10,000 were killed in Bakhmut; a similar number of its own fighters have been killed in that region.
He affirmed that “in the best period” he had 50,000 men at his disposal, and some 35,000 on the battlefront at all times. He did not disclose whether those numbers included inmates.
The United States estimates that Wagner had around 50,000 troops fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. A US official said nearly half of the 20,000 Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine since December were part of Wagner’s troops in Bakhmut.
The United States believes that Wagner spends around 100 million dollars a month on the armed conflict. In December, Washington accused North Korea of supplying weapons, including missiles, to the Russian company in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Both Wagner and North Korea denied the reports.
Criticism of the armed forces
If the US accusation is true, Wagner’s attempts to obtain North Korean weapons may reflect his longstanding dispute with the Russian military top brasswhich dates from the creation of the company.
Prigozhin sought full credit in January for the capture of Soledar, a salt-mining town in the Donetsk region, and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal the glory from Wagner. He has repeatedly complained that the Russian army did not provide Wagner with enough ammunition to seize Bakhmut and threatened to withdraw his men.
Soldiers alleged to be Wagner’s contractors in Ukraine recorded a video in which they cursed at the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army, General Valery Gerasimov, and accused him of not providing ammunition.
Prigozhin has also criticized Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, accusing military leaders of incompetence. His frequent complaints are unprecedented in the political system strictly controlled Russia, where only Putin can make such criticisms.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Prigozhin’s comments critical of the war “might be kind of a morbid form of him… to take credit for everything they could achieve in Bakhmut, but also try to publicly embarrass the Ministry of Defense given the cost that Wagner paid with blood and money and not the Russian army”.
Once an unknown figure, Prigozhin has increasingly raised his public profilebragging almost daily about the alleged victories of the Wagner Group, sardonically mocking their enemies, and complaining about the military high command.
When recently asked about a media comparison of him to Grigory Rasputin, the mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last tsar by claiming the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I shed the blood of the enemies of our country.”
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