Wagner mercenary boss and Russian military chiefs at war — with each other
The Washington Post February 22, 2023
RIGA, Latvia — In the photos, dozens of dead Russian mercenaries were piled up on frozen ground — some half-naked, some wrapped in a tarp. Images like these might usually appear on Ukrainian Telegram channels, but this time they were posted by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the financier of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, who went public with his most bitter attack yet against Russia’s regular military, claiming his fighters were deprived of ammunition and, as a result, died “in heaps” in Ukraine.
In his state of the nation address Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin omitted any mention of his battlefield defeats and steep casualties, and instead attempted to relay an image of a united country working to crush a common enemy.
But even as Putin spoke, the fierce personal attacks unleashed publicly by Prighozin against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff who is now the overall operational commander of the war, exposed what the Russian president refused to admit: His war is flagging, and key players in the Kremlin’s orbit are now at each other’s throats.
Prigozhin, who made billions through government catering contracts, has fallen in and out of favor with Putin and his closest circle in recent years. But having built Wagner into a private army, he seized the chance created by the war in Ukraine to emerge as a national power player and sent at least 50,000 fighters to the front after the regular military suffered huge losses early on.
While ordinary Russians face severe prison sentences for bad-mouthing the military or criticizing the war, Prigozhin has been permitted to attack Shoigu, Gerasimov and other military commanders with seemingly no repercussions, presumably because he is protected by Putin, who may see benefit in the squabbling — as insurance against any one faction turning against him.
Kremlin watchers have long noted Putin’s decision to split the battlefield into fiefs controlled by the Defense Ministry, by Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters and by paramilitary forces loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, among others.
In a recording published by his news service Monday, Prigozhin lamented that Russian generals were stonewalling his ammunition requests. “They all point their fingers up and say, ‘You know you have a complicated relationship up there, so you have to go apologize and obey, then your fighters will get the ammo,’” Prigozhin said, making veiled references to Shoigu and Gerasimov.
Prigozhin attacked military officials who he said ate their meals off “golden plates” and sent their children and grandchildren on holidays to Dubai while soldiers were dying in the war. It was an apparent reference to Shoigu’s daughter, who was recently spotted vacationing in the United Arab Emirates.
The Russian Defense Ministry, which normally ignores any public criticism, offered a rare response, calling Prigozhin’s “exalted” statements false.
The ministry said its command “pays special, constant and priority attention” to providing “everything necessary” to “volunteers,” the way officials refer to illegal mercenaries.
“Attempts to split the close mechanism of interaction and support between the divisions of the Russian group are counterproductive and play only to the advantage of the enemy,” the Defense Ministry added.
In addition to the ugly feud between Prigozhin and the military chiefs, other fissures may be emerging in the Russian government.
Alexander Baunov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, noted that Putin seems to be showing less regard for the Foreign Ministry. “Putin’s address contained praise for almost everyone: the military, the public, the government and Duma, private businesses, doctors and teachers,” Baunov tweeted. “Everyone except diplomats.”
In his speech, Putin also took a jab at the Russian business elite, particularly oligarchs hit hard by sanctions, saying they will also be considered “second class citizens” in the West. “Believe me, none of the ordinary citizens of the country took pity on those who lost their capital in foreign banks, did not pity those who lost their yachts, palaces abroad, and so on,” Putin said.
Still, whatever divisions may be emerging elsewhere, they do not approach the viciousness of Prigozhin’s attacks on the military. On Tuesday, he published a second angry recording, saying his men were dying “because some strange people take decisions on whether they will live or not live.” Then, the bitter infighting continued Wednesday on the morning after Putin’s speech.
“I posted this photo of one of the points where we collect the dead, and all these guys died yesterday because of this so-called ammunition hunger,” Prigozhin said in an interview with a popular military blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky. “There should have been five times fewer dead . . . Who’s fault is this that they died? Those who should have solved the supply issue are to blame.”
“The sign-off must come either from Gerasimov or Shoigu, but neither wants to make a decision,” Prigozhin added.
The conflict between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass has been brewing for weeks, as Wagner fighters appeared to notch some territorial gains in Ukraine following months of retreats by the regular military. Last month, Shoigu demoted Gen. Sergei Surovkin, who had been operational commander of the war and repeatedly won praise from Prigozhin.
Prigozhin has engaged in a series of media stunts, including flying in a fighter jet and publicly challenging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a dogfight.
Wagner’s minimal gains, including capturing the town of Soledar, have come at a huge cost. The mercenary group for months has led an assault intended to advance and capture the city of Bakhmut, which Ukrainian officials called the “bloodiest” spot on the front line. But it continues to suffer massive losses there, and Priogzhin may not be able to replenish his ranks as easily as he did last year by recruiting in prisons.
In mid-February, Prigozhin admitted he is no longer able to recruit convicts, who have made up about 80 percent of the 50,000 Wagner force in Ukraine, according to U.S. assessments.
Analysts said Prigozhin’s public outburst this week showed weakness and recognition that he has lost standing. “This recording is an act of desperation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is rather an attempt to get through to Putin through publicity, to frighten the military authorities with political consequences.”
“Prigozhin does not have direct access to Putin and cannot solve his problems directly,” Stanovaya added. “With Surovikin, as it follows from the audio, everything more or less worked, but now that Gerasimov is in command, difficulties have arisen that require political intervention.”
Wagner has sent poorly equipped men in waves to overwhelm and exhaust the enemy, which resulted in staggering losses among inmates-turned-mercenaries. The White House recently estimated that about 30,000 members of the group have been injured or killed.
Prigozhin also published a copy of a written request for various types of ammunition signed by a Wagner officer and addressed to Gerasimov, which effectively confirms that Wagner is closely coordinated with the Russian military, though mercenary groups are technically illegal in Russia.
“When we will run out of all the Wagner fighters, it’s Shoigu and Gerasimov that will probably have to take up arms,” Prigozhin said in the interview with Tatarsky. “All Russians should speak out and say: ‘Give ammunition to Wagner.”
Analysts said that replacing Surovikin was primarily an attempt to establish a proper chain of command, but it also infuriated Prigozhin and turned him into even more of a loose cannon.
“As long as Putin is relatively strong and able to maintain a balance between influence groups, Prigozhin is not dangerous,” Stanovaya said. “But the sign of weakness could provoke Prigozhin to challenge power, even if not directly Putin’s at first. War breeds monsters, whose recklessness and desperation can become a challenge to the state.”