Head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claims control of Bakhmut
For over two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoyed a time in office largely without criticism from his colleagues. Then came Yevgeny Prigozhin.
While the two were believed to have shared an agreeable friendship in the Noughties — Prigozhin provided catering for the Kremlin, earning him the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’. But today, things are different.
In early May, Prigozhin, the boss and founder of the notorious Wagner Group, hit out at Russian commanders in an unprecedented rebuke. They were “stupid”, he said, responsible for “criminal orders” that were driving the Russian military in Ukraine into the ground.
Directly addressing Russia’s Defence Minister and Chief of General Staff, he said: “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are the f*****g shells?” Look at them! Look at them!” he shouted, pointing towards a pile of corpses, suspected to be Russian soldiers.
“You sit in expensive clubs […] your children make YouTube videos […] they [Wagner fighters] died so you could gorge yourselves in your offices!”
He even took a thinly veiled swipe at Putin, referring to him as the “happy grandfather” who thought the war was going fine. “But what if it turns out that this grandfather is a complete a**hole?” Prigozhin added.
Shortly after this tirade, leaked reports suggested the Wagner boss had approached the Ukrainian military on several occasions, offering to turn over information about the positions of Russian forces if Ukraine withdrew from the city of Bakhmut.
As Professor Matthew Sussex, a fellow at the Australian National University in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre noted in a piece for The Conversation, the infighting has transformed into “a soap opera played out in front of a global audience”.
On the leaked documents, first reported by The Washington Post, Prof Sussex said: “If the Kremlin accepts that line, Prigozhin will be in serious trouble.”
It is unclear whether Prigozhin’s offer truly contained the correct information about Russian positions.
According to Prof Sussex, “the deployment of compromising material and misinformation is a common tactic in Eurasia”.
Prigozhin could well have been ordered to give false information to throw the Ukrainian military of course and secure Bakhmut.
This weekend, Prigozhin himself released video footage, Russian flag in hand, claiming to have captured the city.
Putin later congratulated Wagner and the Russian military forces on “the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk [the city’s Soviet-era name]”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, denies that the city has been taken. Speaking at a G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, he said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by [the] Russian Federation as of today.”
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However, on the state of Bakhmut, he added: “You have to understand that there is nothing. They destroyed everything. For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place … just ruins and a lot of dead Russians.”
It is unclear what lies ahead for Prigozhin. Even if he has successfully captured Bakhmut, the likes of Prof Sussex say it will be difficult for him to keep his place after challenging Putin so blatantly.
The academic said: “While tempers often spill over among Russia’s competing elites, Putin has previously had little trouble reining them in.”
Yet, historically, challengers to the power structures have been swiftly dealt with — until now. Prigozhin continues to lead his mercenary outfit on the frontlines, the longer he does so the more he is perceived as the figure who is leading Russia’s operations.
“The fact he [Putin] now seems unable [or unwilling] to do so [get rid of] with Prigozhin indicates that his ability to control the Kremlin’s fiefdoms isn’t what it used to be,” Prof Sussex wrote.
He added: “A weakened Putin, who has deliberately placed himself at the heart of the Russian state with no obvious successor, would raise more serious questions about the future of his regime.”
Prigozhin has said his Wagner forces will leave Bakhmut by the end of the week in order for regular Russian forces to take over.
In an audio message posted to the Telegram messaging app on Sunday, May 21, he said: “Wagner has made no advances. Wagner today captured no territory.
“We have captured all the territory we promised to capture, right up to the last centimetre.
“As we stated yesterday. We are handing over our positions to [Russia’s] Defence Ministry and on the 25th [of May] we are leaving the conflict zone.”
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