Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin once again amplified his public rift with Russian leadership this week, saying the war in Ukraine had backfired and the Kremlin risked facing a revolution.
In an interview that lasted more than an hour with a prominent pro-Kremlin blogger, Prigozhin offered an astounding —and perhaps a somewhat honest — assessment of the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin estimated heavy losses for his private military company in taking the city of Bakhmut this month, considered more of a symbolic than strategic victory. He also said Russia’s goal to demilitarize Ukraine had completely backfired and suggested Russia should “change the top leadership.”
“In the beginning of the special military operation, let’s say they had 500 tanks. Now they have 5,000 tanks,” he said. “It turned out to be the opposite. We militarized it to the nth degree.”
The private military head also praised the Ukrainian army as one of the “strongest” in the world and suggested Kyiv could retake territory across eastern Ukraine and possibly even the Crimean Peninsula in the upcoming counteroffensive. He argued the invasion, first ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin about 15 months ago to “denazify” Ukraine, has so far failed to produce meaningful results.
“Nothing is working out for us,” Prigozhin said. “The denazification of Ukraine we were talking about has turned Ukraine into a nation that is known everywhere all over the world.”
Prigozhin has repeatedly sounded off against the generals leading the war in recent months and has paid no apparent political price for his frequent criticisms.
Still, the pro-Russian blogger, Konstantin Dolgov, was fired the day after the interview with Prigozhin, according to Radio Free Europe.
Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Prigozhin’s wider goal is not to make Russia look bad but to criticize the conduct of the war through what the Wagner chief believes is a “clearer description of what’s going on.”
“He believes that a greater effort ought to be put into prosecuting this war,” Graham said. “If anything, he would like to be more aggressive.”
Graham compared Prigozhin to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has also deployed fighters in Ukraine and has been sometimes critical of how the war has been carried out.
Both Kadyrov and Prigozhin are unlikely to face much consequences for public comments given their positions overseeing military units — so long as they contain their criticisms and don’t attack Putin or the war itself, according to analysts.
Wagner Group, which has fought for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine since October, paid a heavy price for taking the city and delivering Russia its first significant victory since the summer.
In the monthslong battle, Prigozhin says he lost around 20,000 troops, about half of whom were his employees and half were convicts recruited from prisons. Many of the prisoner soldiers were thrown at Ukrainian lines to make incremental advances.
Prigozhin became known for fiery rants during the battle for Bakhmut, many of them ripping into Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the commander overseeing the war in Ukraine, for not providing enough ammunition and for cowardice among conventional Russian troops.
The Wagner chief was the first to announce victory in Bakhmut last weekend, which was followed by a quick statement from Russia’s Ministry of Defense and then Putin himself, who named the mercenary company along with his army for their role in taking the city.
Prigozhin appears to have grown much bolder since taking Bakhmut. In the interview, Prigozhin called his army the toughest in the world, putting himself above the Russian military, which he refers to as the second strongest.
Later in the interview he called out Shoigu by name and other Russian elites, accusing them this time of protecting their children from war and having “fat, carefree lives” while others are suffering.
George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Prigozhin has lofty political ambitions in Russia and is setting himself up as a populist leader.
“I think his goal is to portray himself as a contrast and alternative to what he’s portraying as corrupt Russian military leadership,” Beebe said. “They’re exploiting Russia’s tax dollars for their own benefit and for the benefit of their children.”
“Wagner, on the other hand, we’re real men. We’re out there fighting, we’re dying, we’re the ones that are spending blood for the sake of the motherland,” he continued, assessing Prigozhin’s thinking. “I think that’s what his broader message is about.”
The remarks from Prigozhin this week came as pro-Ukrainian militia groups marched into Belgorod, a region of Russia bordering Ukraine.
Russia’s military battled the resistance groups, which described themselves as Russian citizens seeking to overthrow the Kremlin, for two days in what became an unsettling incursion into Russian territory.
On Telegram, Prigozhin posted statements criticizing Russia’s Ministry of Defense for failing to secure the borders.
Prigozhin said in the interview that Russia might face another revolution similar to 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the monarchy and introduced communism, because of corruption during a time of war.
“The only thing this dichotomy can lead to is a revolution,” he said. “In the beginning, the soldiers will rise up and after that, their relatives will.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.