The man in charge of Russia’s notorious Wagner Group private mercenary army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has warned that Russia could face a “revolution” and lose its war in Ukraine unless the country’s “elites” fully commit to the fight and put the country “into North Korea mode,” with martial law imposed, to achieve results on the front lines.
In a lengthy video interview with a pro-war, pro-Kremlin blogger, Prigozhin lashed out against Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his daughter Ksenia, a sports executive whose New Year wartime vacation in Dubai drew ire from the Russian public.
Russia at risk of a pitchfork “revolution”
“The children of elites… allow themselves to lead a public, fat, carefree life,” Prigozhin fumed, “while the children of others arrive back shredded to pieces in zinc coffins.”
“This duality may end like it did in 1917, with a revolution, when first the soldiers rise up, and after that their loved ones do,” he warned, referring to the Russian Revolution that toppled the country’s monarchy more than a century ago. Prigozhin said Russian citizens could raid the elites’ homes with “pitchforks… and don’t think there are hundreds of them, now there are now tens of thousands of relatives of those killed, and there will probably be hundreds of thousands.”
It was hardly the first time Prigozhin has criticized the country’s top brass or its political and business elite, whom he considers incompetent and has even accused of treason for having foreign property and sending their children abroad, but the interview stood out for the harshness of his critique of the strategic blunders by Russian military forces in their flagging war in Ukraine.
“Prepare for a hard war”
“We stormed in an aggressive manner and stomped our boots all over Ukraine while looking for Nazis,” Prigozhin said. “We approached Kyiv, s**t our pants, and retreated. Next onto Kherson, where we also s**t our pants and retreated, and nothing seems to be working out for us.”
He said the vague goals stated by his long-time associate President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials at the beginning of the war, as aiming to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine, had failed.
Prigozhin avoided criticizing Putin himself. He even reaffirmed his devotion to the Russian leader, the war in Ukraine and the Russian motherland, blaming Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for a poorly organized chain of command and corruption that left the Russian Armed Forces unprepared for Ukraine’s fierce, Western-backed resistance.
Prigozhin, who grew rich on government catering contracts and has since branched out, as CBS News’ own investigation has found, to bankroll his private army through a vast and brutal international criminal enterprise, offered two potential scenarios of how he believed the war in Ukraine may pan out for Russia:
“There are optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The optimistic one, which I don’t really believe in, is that Europe and America will get tired of the Ukrainian conflict, then China will put everyone at the negotiating table,” he said. “We will agree that everything that we have already seized is ours, and everything that has not been seized is not ours. It is unlikely that this scenario is possible.”
Instead, Prigozhin said, Ukraine could get more Western weapons and ramp up its long-expected counteroffensive, which “may succeed in some places.”
“They will try to restore their 2014 borders, and this could easily happen; they will attack Crimea, they will try to blow up the Crimean bridge, cut off the supply lines, and for us, this scenario won’t be good, so we need to prepare for a hard war,” he continued.
“We are in such a condition that we could f***ing lose Russia, which is the main problem… We need to impose martial law,” Prigozhin concluded.
Prigozhin offers Wagner Group death toll
The Wagner chief gave his first estimates on the levels of casualties among his company’s mercenaries, saying he had recruited 50,000 convicts from Russian prisons during the war, 20% of whom had died, along with 10,000 other forces who were hired on contract.
The White House said in early May that around 10,000 Wagner fighters had been killed around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the bloodiest battle of the war so far, since December alone.
It’s impossible to verify either the U.S. estimate or Prigozhin’s own figure, which is double, but spans the entire 15 months of the war.
Russia’s Defense Ministry hasn’t released casualty figures since September, when it said only around 6,000 regular soldiers had died in the war — a significant undercount according to Western intelligence and military experts.
For the first time, Prigozhin also commented on his nickname, “Putin’s chef,” given to him by Russian investigative journalists after they uncovered his vast government catering contracts.
“I have never been a chef; I used to be a restaurateur and quite successful. I can’t cook myself. They should have just come up with ‘Putin’s butcher’ instead,” Prigozhin quipped in an apparent reference to the brutal tactics his mercenary army has now deployed from Ukraine to central Africa.
Prigozhin’s ability to spew bitter criticism at senior Russian officials with seeming impunity, which is then amplified by cohorts of influential pro-war bloggers on Russian Telegram channels, has puzzled many Russia-watchers. Similar comments, even tamer ones, have landed dozens of political dissidents and others in prison under strict laws passed by Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament at the onset of the Ukraine invasion to silence opposing voices.
But Prigozhin and his mercenaries have claimed some front-line successes — largely by throwing waves of ill-prepared and ill-equipped convicts into battle as cannon-fodder, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.
Those limited successes, after months of embarrassing routs suffered by the regular military, prompted Putin to recently congratulate both Wagner and the army for taking control of Bakhmut, though Ukraine still insists the city is being fought over.
Many have taken Putin’s praise as confirmation that, despite his public antics, Prigozhin still carries high-up approval for his dedication to Russia’s war.
“I love my homeland. I obey Putin. To hell with Shoigu,” Prigozhin said in his latest rant. “We will continue to fight.”