Russian mercenary chief vented to Vladimir Putin over Ukraine war bungling

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The confidant who vented to Russian President Vladimir Putin recently about his military’s handling of the war in Ukraine was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder of a Russian mercenary group that is playing a critical role for Moscow on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to two US officials familiar with the matter.

Prigozhin’s criticism echoed what he has been saying publicly for weeks, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. But the revelation that he felt comfortable sharing such a harsh rebuke of the Russian military effort with Putin in a private setting shows how his influence is rising as Moscow’s war falters. It also highlights the shaky standing of the Russian defense establishment’s formal leadership, which has come under fire from Prigozhin and others after months of battlefield errors and losses.

The Washington Post previously reported that a Russian insider confronted Putin personally to spotlight mismanagement of the war effort but did not name that individual. The Post reported that the exchange was considered significant enough to include in the daily intelligence briefing provided to President Biden.

Prigozhin’s frustration with the Russian Defense Ministry and his growing tension with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are also the subject of a separate US intelligence report that has been circulating among officials in Washington, according to people who have read the file.

For years, Prigozhin operated in the shadows of Russian power, denying links to Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group and the St. Petersburg internet troll factory that US authorities said he financed to meddle in the 2016 US presidential campaign. He helped advance the Kremlin’s foreign aims outside formal structures, and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” owing to his ownership of a St. Petersburg restaurant Putin once frequented and a catering company boasting lucrative Russian state and city contracts.

But in recent weeks, Prigozhin has stepped into the open in a dramatic debut in Russian public life, admitting his leadership of Wagner for the first time and publicly assailing the Russian military leadership for its mistakes.

In Ukraine, a Russian mercenary group steps out of the shadows

“That’s the political public position that he has been striking: I am Yevgeniy Prigozhin. I’m here to tell you the truth, and I’ll get the job done,” said a US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity and speaking generally about Prigozhin, not about the intelligence regarding his interactions with Putin.

According to the US intelligence report that has been circulating in Washington, Prigozhin has expressed his view that the Russian Defense Ministry relies too much on Wagner and is not giving the mercenary group sufficient money and resources to fulfill its mission in the conflict, the people who read the said report.

US intelligence officials believe that Prigozhin staged a recent video on social media depicting Wagner soldiers complaining about a lack of basic food and provisions as a means of pressuring the Kremlin to boost funding to his mercenary group.

“Prigozhin’s decision to confront Putin is only the latest sign of his dissatisfaction,” said a person who read the report.

Prigozhin denied recent personal contact with Putin in comments to The Washington Post made late Monday through his press service.

“First, I did not communicate personally with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin either recently or in any foreseeable future. I did not criticize the management of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation during the conflict in Ukraine. Therefore, I cannot comment on anything,” he said, adding that he had no right to criticize or praise the work of Russia’s armed forces since he was not a military expert.

He also said he had not seen a video of Wagner’s forces complaining about food and provisions.

Prighozin often harshly criticizes journalists who ask him questions and at times has told Russian reporters to go to the front and fight against Ukraine. In addition to his denials, Prighozin issued a rambling, sexist diatribe against US journalism and The Post, referring to “bazaar women in the kitchen, who collect gossip and speculation” and complaining of “ridiculous provocative and offensive questions.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the interaction between Prigozhin and Putin.

Since the war started, Prigozhin has used Defense Minister Shoigu and top uniformed generals as his foils, positioning himself as a no-holds-barred leader able to show results on the battlefield in Ukraine.

His paramilitary group — staffed by battle-hardened veterans accused of human rights violations who operate outside the formal Russian military structure — has been waging an offensive to take Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region held by Ukrainian forces. Some analysts see it as an attempt to show that his soldiers can make progress even while the rest of the Russian military is on the back foot.

The result is an apparent revival of his status in Putin’s inner circle, which had reportedly been jeopardized before the war by squabbling with top Russian officials.

“He has been really rising all these last months,” said Marlene Laruelle, director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. “The war gave him the possibility of approaching Putin more than ever before.”

With figures such as Prigozhin and Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov publicly voicing criticism of the Russian military, “the shadow aspect of the Russian state is becoming more and more visible,” Laruelle said.

The interaction between Putin and Prigozhin has been followed by a more ruthless Russian approach to the war.

After the Russian military’s repeated setbacks, which involved losing more than 3,000 square miles of territory, Putin for the first time chose an overall commander to lead the Ukrainian war effort. The appointment this month filled a leadership void that military analysts had cited as one reason Moscow had been struggling with the command and control of its forces.

Prigozhin hailed Putin’s choice in a statement released by his catering company on the Russian social media site VK, calling Sergey Surovikin, the new general in charge, a “legendary character” born to serve the Motherland and “the most competent commander” in the Russian military. Surovikin earned the nickname “General Armageddon” in Syria after the Russian military became known for its indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.

In Ukraine, Russia has also recently pivoted to harsher tactics affecting civilians, particularly after the humiliating bombing in early October of the Crimean Bridge linking Russia to Crimea. Moscow has landed missiles in the center of Kyiv for the first time in months and took aim at Ukrainian energy infrastructure with a limited supply of precision-guided munitions to cause blackouts. And it has begun to use Iranian combat drones to hit critical infrastructure and terrorize civilians.

Setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine have led to increased nuclear threats by Russia, echoing Cold War events like the little-known 1983 nuclear crisis. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

As morale suffers, Russia and Ukraine fight a war of mental attrition

Hard-liners, including those who support Prigozhin, had long been urging the Kremlin to use more scorched-earth tactics against urban centers, regardless of their impact on Ukraine’s civilian population. Putin’s latest moves have played against them.

“He thinks he can still win, which is why he’s throwing everything he can at the situation,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior White House official handling Russian and Eurasian affairs. “We’re in that period now where he’s trying to push us into his version of the endgame. The guy thinks he can pull it off.”

Earlier this month, Prigozhin said in a statement posted to social media that the Russian military’s top brass was out of touch with the situation on the ground in Ukraine. “I think that we should send all these bastards barefoot to the front with machine guns,” he said.

It’s unclear if Prigozhin is primarily focused on wresting more influence within the Russian defense establishment or if he harbors greater political ambitions for himself or those close to him.

With public criticism of Putin still taboo, Shoigu has borne the brunt of frustration over the conflict and in recent months has been “sidelined within the Russian leadership, with operational commanders briefing President Putin directly on the course of the war,” according to an assessment by Britain’s Defense Ministry in August.

The ministry said Shoigu is struggling to overcome his reputation as “lacking substantive military experience, as he spent most of his career in the construction sector and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.”

Russia’s ultimate political survivor faces a wartime reckoning

Prigozhin, meanwhile, is presenting himself as a more extreme, unvarnished alternative.

A video that began circulating on Russian social media in September showed Prigozhin recruiting potential fighters at a Russian prison. Prigozhin later responded to criticism of his prisoner recruitment efforts in a statement released on VK by his catering company.

“Those who do not want mercenaries or prisoners to fight … who do not like this topic, send your children to the front,” Prigozhin said. “It’s either them or your children, decide for yourself.” About a week later, Putin ordered a mobilization of what the Russian Defense Ministry said would be 300,000 reservists to replenish depleted forces. The move sent hundreds of thousands of eligible men fleeing Russia to avoid being called to battle.

Before the war began to go badly for the Russian military, “it wasn’t propitious” for critics to seize the spotlight. But “people like Prigozhin now see a chance to grab for the brass ring,” said Hill, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “This really shows the system is under stress, when people start pushing themselves forward like this.”

Prigozhin has risen far above his humble roots as a hot dog vendor in Putin’s home city of Leningrad. He spent nine years in prison for robbery and other crimes, then co-founded casinos and a floating restaurant, where he personally served Putin, then Russia’s new president, as well as President George W. Bush. He then opened a catering business that won contracts with the Russian government. After years of denials, he only recently publicly admitted that he founded Wagner in May 2014 to support Russian-backed separatists in their effort to seize control of the Donbas region of Ukraine.

The US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Prigozhin in March due to the Wagner Group’s involvement in the war. Prior to that, he was already sanctioned and indicted by the United States for financing the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory that US intelligence agencies said was part of a Kremlin effort to interfere in the 2016 election. The United States has said the group has sought to spread “false narratives online” seeking to undermine governments in the US, Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

His years in prison and hardscrabble beginnings likely built resentment against the political elites and those who enjoyed privilege after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Laruelle said.

The war helped his ambition. “He wants political recognition,” she said. “Money is not enough. I think he really cares about having an official status.”

The increasingly prominent public role of figures such as Prigozhin and Kadyrov in the war effort is irritating some Russian officials, who see them as rogue actors who play by their own rules. “To have leaders like Prigozhin and Kadyrov – they [the establishment] can’t live with this anymore,” one Russian official said in an interview. “This is not Russia. It’s a criminal brotherhood based on the principles of the Middle Ages.”

Greg Miller, Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Catherine Belton contributed to this report.

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