Boss of Wagner mercenaries says Ukraine war has backfired, warns of Russian revolution
The Washington Post May 24, 2023
RIGA, Latvia — Fresh off his claim of victory in capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Russian mercenary boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin warned that Moscow's brutal war could plunge Russia into turmoil similar to the 1917 revolution unless its detached, wealthy elite become more directly committed to the conflict.
In a lengthy interview with Konstantin Dolgov, a political operative and pro-war blogger, Prigozhin, the founder and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, also asserted that the war had backfired spectacularly by failing to "demilitarize" Ukraine, one of President Vladimir Putin's stated aims of the invasion. He also called for totalitarian policies going forward.
"We are in a situation where we can simply lose Russia," Prigozhin said, using an expletive to hammer his point. "We must introduce martial law. We unfortunately ... must announce new waves of mobilization; we must put everyone who is capable to work on increasing the production of ammunition," he said. "Russia needs to live like North Korea for a few years, so to say, close the borders ... and work hard."
Citing public anger at the lavish lifestyles of Russia's rich and powerful, Prigozhin warned their homes could be stormed by people with "pitchforks." He singled out Ksenia Shoigu, the daughter of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was spotted vacationing in Dubai with her fiancé, Alexei Stolyarov, a fitness blogger.
"The children of the elite shut their traps at best, and some allow themselves a public, fat, carefree life," Prigozhin said in the interview, which was recorded on video and published Wednesday. "This division might end as in 1917, with a revolution — when first the soldiers rise up, and then their loved ones follow."
Prigozhin, who earned a fortune and the nickname "Putin's chef" off government catering contracts, seized a central role in the war in Ukraine, first by deploying his mercenaries on the front lines and later by recruiting heavily from prisons to bolster Moscow's depleted forces with convicts desperate for pardons. In the interview, Prigozhin said that he was never a chef and doesn't know how to cook, suggesting that journalists should've called him "Putin's butcher" instead.
Wagner fighters led the bloody, months-long onslaught in Bakhmut, which culminated this week in Putin declaring the city to be fully under Russian control. It was Putin's first significant territorial victory since last summer. Ukraine's military insists it is still fighting for the city but admits being pushed to its outskirts.
But while Prigozhin's role in Bakhmut has given him a major platform, he has been engaged in a nasty running feud with Shoigu and other commanders of the Russia's regular military, repeatedly accusing them of denying Wagner forces needed ammunition. He also repeatedly threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut.
In the interview with Dolgov, Prigozhin professed to be guided by love for the Russian motherland and loyalty to Putin. But he also delivered blistering criticism of the war, which the Kremlin refers to as a "special military operation," describing it as having abjectly failed both militarily and politically.
Instead of demilitarization, he said, the invasion turned "Ukraine's army into one of the most powerful in the world" and Ukrainians into "a nation known to the entire world."
"If they, figuratively speaking, had 500 tanks at the beginning of the special operation, now they have 5,000," he said. "If they had 20,000 fighters who knew how to fight, now they have 400,000. How did we 'demilitarize' it? Now it turns out that we militarized it — hell knows how."
Prigozhin this week once again said that his fighters would leave Bakhmut, potentially in an effort to leave Shoigu and the Russian military responsible for holding the city, which Kyiv insists it will retake.
In the interview, he had special venom for the children of the elite and for the many wealthy Russians who have tried to avoid letting their lives be disrupted by the war. Prigozhin, however, did not comment on the fact that this effort to shield Russians has been a central strategy of Putin's since the invasion started.
Prigozhin said that down the line, the individual grief of "tens of thousands of relatives" of killed soldiers might reach a boiling point, and the Russian government will have to contend with a broader outburst of anger and discontent, exacerbated by the economic disparity.
"My advice to the Russian elites — get your lads, send them to war, and when you go to the funeral, when you start burying them, people will say that now everything is fair," Prigozhin said in the interview.
Prigozhin's rants in many ways undermine the official Moscow line and almost certainly would result in harsh punishment for anyone else. The country has effectively outlawed any criticism of the military, the war and its leaders, and many ordinary citizens have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison for such remarks.
While regular Russian military officials keep a lid on the number of casualties in Ukraine, Prigozhin said that 20,000 Wagner fighters had died in the battle for Bakhmut. Even if an undercount, the figure eclipses the last official number given by Moscow in September, when Shoigu claimed that 5,937 soldiers had died.
Military experts attribute such a high death toll among Wagner fighters to its commanders' brutal tactics of sending waves of poorly trained convicts to exhaust Ukrainians, at times threatening the prisoners with death if they retreat.
Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, but Prigozhin has been allowed to operate with impunity, deploying his fighters to countries in the Middle East and Africa, and then last year to Ukraine, where some have been accused of atrocities. The group is especially active in Africa, where Wagner mercenaries often leave a bloody trail. The United Nations called for an independent investigation into Wagner's activities in Mali, where its soldiers are suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity, following a slew of reports about horrific executions, torture, rape and abductions.
Prigozhin's public attacks against Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and the Wagner chief's evident desire to become the face of the war have poisoned his relationship with the military brass and the Kremlin administration. Prigozhin has complained that he is now rarely mentioned on state-controlled television.
Putin, who is known for pitting one fief against another to ensure a tighter grip on power, even set up a meeting in hopes of defusing the tension, but a serious rift remains between the factions of Russia's forces, with both the Defense Ministry and Prigozhin disgruntled over sharing the spotlight for Bakhmut.
While Prigozhin has sought to cultivate an image of himself as a fighter, appearing in full battle gear on the front lines in countless videos, he falls squarely among the Putin cronies who have become billionaires off their government connections and contracts. Like his fighters, however, Prigozhin is also an ex-convict: He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for robbery and other crimes, and spent most of the 1980s in jail.
So far, Prigozhin remains unmatched in publicity, succeeding where some regular commanders have stumbled, in some cases in humiliating fashion.
Military experts, for example, pointed to a staged clip of Gen. Col. Alexander Lapin that emerged Tuesday, showing him commanding a small group of troops to fight off a mysterious two-day incursion in the Belgorod region, a staging area for Russian forces that borders Ukraine.
The clip, in which Lapin is seen walking alongside a convoy of armored vehicles shouting, "Go forward, guys! For the motherland," was ridiculed by some Russian pro-war bloggers as "embarrassing" and "laughable." Local officials, meanwhile, fought off questions from civilians alarmed about a breach in the border.
"I have even more questions for the Defense Ministry than you have," Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said in a live question-and-answer session with local residents after militias made up of Russians fighting on Ukraine's side in the war stormed a checkpoint in Grayvoron district and infiltrated nearby villages.
Gladkov said Tuesday that one woman died while being evacuated during the attack, and eight others were injured. Russian officials claimed to repel the attacks, while the militias responsible said they were still actively fighting inside Russian territory.
"We are living in a very difficult period," Gladkov said in a separate statement. "But I am proud that the residents of the Belgorod region are courageous people; they didn't just get used to it but learned to act quickly."
The disruptions in Belgorod continued Wednesday, with multiple drones targeting a gas pipeline and residential buildings, Gladkov said.
Meanwhile, the Russian-built Crimean Bridge, Putin's prized project connecting mainland Russia with the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula, was temporarily shut Wednesday due to what local officials called "exercises." It was unclear what exercise took place around the bridge, which carries heavy civilian traffic. Local media outlets posted videos showing plumes of white smoke over the span.
The bridge was hit by an explosion last year in an attack Moscow said was orchestrated by Ukrainian forces. Ukraine has never officially claimed responsibility.
Incidents such as the incursion in Belgorod dominate the news in border regions, undermining Putin's goal of trying to lead the war while making it invisible to the general public.
In his interview, Prigozhin said there was an "optimistic scenario" for Russia's war: Western support for Ukraine wears out, and China brokers a peace deal, allowing Russia to keep occupied Ukrainian lands.
"I don't have much faith in the optimistic scenario," he said, adding that instead Ukraine could partially succeed in a highly anticipated counteroffensive, pushing Russian troops closer to the borders that existed before hostilities began in 2014. They could also attack Crimea and continue pressing on in the east, armed with more Western weapons, he said.
"Most likely this scenario will not be good for us," Prigozhin said. "So we need to prepare for a difficult war."