- Powerful mercenary forces have won the battle for Bakhmut
- He uttered insults against the senior ranks of the Russian armed forces
- Criticism of the war and taboo of the authorities in Putin’s Russia
- But tacit approval within those around him, sources say
MOSCOW, May 23 (Reuters) – Yevgeny Prigozhin on Saturday delivered Vladimir Putin one of the few battlefield victories in the president’s 15-month war in Ukraine.
Even then, Russia’s most powerful mercenary couldn’t help breaking the taboos of Putin’s tightly controlled political system.
Holding a Russian flag and an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, Prigozhin announced the fall of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut surrounded by heavily armed mercenaries, the black banners of his Wagner group and charred ruins where tens of thousands perished.
“Thank you to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who gave us this opportunity and the great honor to defend our homeland,” Prigozhin said, praising his private army of convicts, soldiers and spies for 224 days of deadly house-to-house fighting.
He then launched into his favorite rant: the alleged betrayal of Putin’s top brass, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
This month he portrayed Putin’s top military as “fucking bitches” who would be forced to eat the guts of fallen soldiers. On Saturday, he accused them of letting five times as many men die as necessary.
“One day they will answer…for their evil deeds,” he said. “We have a list of everyone who helped us and everyone who actively opposed us and basically helped the enemy.”
Such talk is dangerous in Putin’s Russia, where public criticism from within the war system and Putin’s team is not tolerated – unless, of course, you have the tacit approval of the inner circle of the president.
Prigozhin is not directly challenging Putin, but rather playing a buffoon and acting with the approval of those appalled by the military’s conduct of the war, officials, diplomats and analysts told Reuters.
His impertinence, however, shows the strain that the war – a word he uses in defiance of a Kremlin ban – has placed on Putin’s 23-year-old political system. It also raised questions about Prigozhin’s future.
“There’s a lot of mystery about what Prigozhin is doing,” Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Reuters. “What intrigues me is the impression it projects both in the West and inside Russia.”
“The image of growing chaos within the Russian military leadership, an image of infighting, an image of Putin’s distance or even weakness,” he said. “Prigozhin wouldn’t do this skid accidentally.”
Prigozhin, the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The Ministry of Defense presents Wagner as an “assault squad”, and Shoigu and Gerasimov have not publicly commented on Prigozhin’s insults.
In Prigozhin’s most memorable video, on May 5, he showed a field of dead Wagner mercenaries who he claimed had perished due to a lack of ammunition caused by Shoigu and Gerasimov.
“Shoigu, Gerasimov – where’s the fucking ammunition? Look at them (the dead mercenaries), you bitches,” he said. “They’re somebody’s fucking fathers, somebody’s sons.”
Between the swear words, Prigozhin shrewdly spliced a deeper critique: soldiers fled the front while the Russian people faced destruction by a venal military elite more interested in luxury and intrigue than the battlefield.
On Russia’s holiest war anniversary, he warned of ‘the fucking parade’ in Red Square just as Shoigu and Putin watched a pared-back parade marking the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during World War II.
He also joked about an unidentified “happy grandpa” who might turn out to be a “complete asshole”.
Prigozhin “seems, out of desperation, frustration and love in his own voice, to go from outrageous but understandable pleas for help and attention to self-destruction,” said a Western diplomat who spoke under the guise of ‘anonymity.
“Prigozhin would make a weak rebel, however, with an armed force without its own independent logistical capability.”
A Russian source who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation said Prigozhin “represents one of the sides” in a struggle within the Putin system.
Since Putin came to power in 1999, the former KGB lieutenant colonel has crafted a rigid, if often chaotic, system in which public criticism is not tolerated.
In a sign of the extent to which Prigozhin is seen to have broken these rules, state television ignored Bakhmut’s fall for 20 hours.
It began its broadcast with a Defense Ministry briefing on Russian strikes in Ukraine and aired a lengthy report on a tango festival in Moscow.
“In our country there are two realities: the real one and the one shown on TV,” Prigozhin said.
It took 10 hours for the Kremlin to issue a terse 36-word statement congratulating Wagner and armed forces units for “liberating” Artyomovsk, the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut used by Russia. He did not name Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said he would hand Bakhmut over to the Russian military by June 1 and rebase his forces in rear camps until he was needed again.
“I believe people from Putin’s inner circle are behind him – there’s no doubt about that,” said Igor Girkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who helped Russia annex Crimea in 2014. then to organize pro-Russian militias in the east of the country. Ukraine.
“The public controversy between Prigozhin and the silent Defense Ministry is the result of contradictions that have arisen within the ruling clan. This is the beginning of the struggle for life after Putin.”
With an election looming in March 2024, it’s unclear whether the president will tolerate such a publicly visible struggle for long.
“Unless Putin does something, it will show his weakness,” said another Western diplomat. “Prigozhin is not indispensable but he can be useful in a very brutal way.”
edited by John Stonestreet
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