The head of the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group has resumed this week a strategy that he uses on a recurring basis: attacking Russia’s high military commanders for the failures in the war in Ukraine, something that only a few can do publicly without facing the reprisals from the Kremlin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s comments have exposed his longstanding feud with the Defense Ministry. This time, however, the criticism has come at a time when Moscow was boasting a rare and much-needed victory in a 15-month-old war, when Prigozhin and his fighters raised a Russian flag at Bakhmut after a long and bloody battle. But after that apparently triumphant moment, Prigozhin complained about Russian failures in the Ukraine.

What exactly is the role of 61-year-old Prigozhin and his Wagner Group in the war?

Using direct and profane language during a nearly 80-minute video interview Tuesday with a pro-Kremlin political strategist, Prigozhin said “somehow nothing is working for us” in Ukraine.

He spoke of the Kremlin’s position at the start of the war in February 2022, when President Vladimir Putin tried to justify the invasion by falsely claiming that it was a campaign against “Nazis”, despite the fact that the President of Ukraine is a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust and heads a democratically elected, Western-backed government.

“We came abruptly, we walked with our boots on all over Ukraine looking for Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we eliminated as many as we could,” Prigozhin said, citing areas around Kiev and the southern city of Kherson.

Russia failed to “demilitarize” Ukraine, one of Putin’s goals from the first day of the invasion, but turned Kiev’s army into “one of the strongest” in the world with higher-quality equipment and training.

Prigozhin said that at Bakhmut he lost about 20,000 men from his mercenary army.

Prigozhin was convicted of robbery and assault in 1981 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. After his release, he opened a restaurant in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It was then that he met Putin, who was the city’s deputy mayor at the time.

Prigozhin used that connection to develop a catering business and landed lucrative contracts from the Russian government that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” He later branched out into other areas, including media outlets and an infamous internet “troll factory” for which the United States accused him of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In January, Prigozhin admitted to having founded, directed and financed the shadowy company Grupo Wagner.

Wagner was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine shortly after a separatist conflict broke out there in April 2014, in the weeks after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

While backing a separatist insurgency in Donbas, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, Russia has denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Involving private mercenaries in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of denial.

Prigozhin’s company was called the Wagner Group after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel in the special forces of the Russian army. He soon acquired a reputation for brutality and cruelty.

Wagner’s staff have also deployed to Syria, where Russia supported the government of President Bashar Assad in a civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside the forces of commander Khalifa Hafter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Prigozhin is said to have used Wagner’s deployment in Syria and African countries to win lucrative mining contracts. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in January that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to finance operations in Ukraine.

Some Russian media reported that Wagner was involved in the 2018 murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic who were investigating the group’s activities. Such murders remain unsolved.

Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner’s mercenaries of violating human rights throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.

In 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious violations of human rights, including torture, executions and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings”, and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

A video posted online in 2017 showed a group of armed people, allegedly Wagner mercenaries, torturing a Syrian and beating him to death with a sledgehammer before mutilating and burning his body. The Russian authorities ignored requests from the media and rights activists for the incident to be investigated.

In 2022, another video showed a former Wagner mercenary killed with a sledgehammer after allegedly going over to the Ukrainian side. Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin did nothing.

Wagner has assumed an increasingly obvious role in the war as Russian regular troops have suffered great attrition and lost territory in humiliating defeats.

Prigozhin toured Russian prisons recruiting fighters, promising pardons if they survived a half-year’s tour of duty on the front lines with Wagner.

In this week’s interview, Prigozhin claimed he had recruited 50,000 convicts, some 10,000 of whom were killed at Bakhmut.

He stated that “in the best period” he had 50,000 men at his disposal, and some 35,000 on the battlefront at all times. He did not disclose whether those numbers included inmates.

The United States estimates that Wagner had about 50,000 troops fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 mercenaries and 40,000 convicts. A US official said nearly half of the 20,000 Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine since December were part of Wagner’s troops in Bakhmut.

The United States believes that Wagner spends about $100 million a month on the armed conflict. In December, Washington accused North Korea of ​​supplying weapons, including missiles, to the Russian company in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Both Wagner and North Korea denied this.

If the US accusation is true, Wagner’s attempts to obtain North Korean weapons may reflect his longstanding feud with Russian military top brass, dating back to the company’s inception.

Prigozhin sought full credit in January for the capture of Soledar, a salt-mining town in the Donetsk region, and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal “glory” from Wagner. He has repeatedly complained that the Russian army did not provide Wagner with enough ammunition to seize Bakhmut and threatened to withdraw the men from him.

Soldiers alleged to be Wagner’s mercenaries in Ukraine recorded a video in which they cursed at the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army, General Valery Gerasimov, and accused him of not providing ammunition.

Prigozhin has also criticized Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, accusing military leaders of incompetence. His frequent complaints about him are unprecedented in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, where only Putin can make such criticisms.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Prigozhin’s comments critical of the war “could be some kind of ploy to get credit for everything they’ve been able to accomplish in Bakhmut, and to the try to publicly embarrass the Ministry of Defense given the cost paid with blood and money by Wagner and not the Russian Army”.

Prigozhin, until recently an unknown figure, has increasingly raised his public profile, bragging almost daily about the alleged victories of the Wagner Group, sardonically mocking his enemies and complaining about the top military commanders.

When recently asked about a media comparison of him to Grigory Rasputin, the mystic who had a fatal influence on Russia’s last tsar by claiming the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I shed the blood of the enemies of our country.”

According to the criteria of The Trust Project