As Russia vows to respond ‘extremely harshly’ to rare two-day border incursion by pro-Ukrainian fighters, leader of Russia’s largest mercenary force warns it will face further setbacks unless its ruling elite takes drastic and probably unpopular steps to win the war.
“The most likely scenario for us in a special operation would be the wrong one,” Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, said in a blasphemous interview with a pro-Kremlin political watcher published Tuesday evening. the Telegram messaging platform. “We are in such a condition that we could lose Russia,” he continued, his speech mixed with profanity. “We must prepare for a very harsh war which will cause hundreds of thousands of victims.”
An oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin has ratcheted up the pressure on Russia’s military rulers with explosive rants on public internet platforms and extended his criticism to the country’s wealthy elites.
He was strengthened by his notorious mercenary forcein the recent conquest of Bakhmut, Russia’s first battlefield victory in months. However, Russian state media kept his name out of their coverage of these events, showing how the Russian propaganda machine was hiding. elite infighting and frontline troubles of the Russian people.
In the interview, Mr Prigozhin called for all-out war – something Mr Putin carefully avoided, seeking to reassure his people that their lives will not be disrupted by the “special military operation” in Ukraine. This position became more difficult to maintain as the war dragged on and Russian casualties mounted.
The Kremlin, Mr. Prigozhin said, must declare a new wave of mobilization to call up more fighters and declare martial law and force “everyone possible” to participate in the country’s munitions production efforts.
“We have to stop building new roads and infrastructure and only work for war, to live a few years like North Korea,” he said. “If we win, we can build anything. We stabilize the front, then we move to some kind of active action.
The alternative, he said, is more violence, but inside Russia, perpetrated by ordinary people who are fed up with the elites, whom Mr Prigozhin characterized as ignoring the reality of war. but not doing enough to earn it.
“Elite children slather themselves in creams, showing it on the internet, ordinary people’s children arrive in zinc, torn to pieces,” he said, referring to the coffins of dead soldiers, and adding that those who were killed in action had “tens of thousands” of relatives. “Society always demands justice, and if there is no justice, then revolutionary feelings arise.”
Mr Prigozhin said his Wagner force alone lost 20,000 men during the war in Ukraine, half of whom were recruited from prisons. These convicted fighters represent 20% of the total number of imprisoned convicts who have joined the fighting force.
A State Department spokesman, Mark Miller, said the United States viewed Mr Prigozhin’s number as a significant understatement of his losses. Even so, it is significantly higher than the losses of the Russian armed forces that the Kremlin has acknowledged. While US estimates are significantly higher, the Russian government has only admitted the death of 6,000 soldiers – statistics last made public in September.
Mr Prigozhin’s comments in the interview came after an incursion into Russia’s Belgorod region by Ukraine-aligned militants. The fighters, ethnic Russians seeking victory for Ukraine, apparently used American-made armored vehiclesand sparked the fiercest fighting on Russian soil since the war began 15 months ago.
Mr Prigozhin said Ukraine had “one of the strongest armies in the world” and added that the border violence reflected poor leadership at the highest level of the Russian military. He often singled out Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu as the object of his anger, and in the interview, Mr. Prigozhin defined his personal credo as follows: “I love my motherland, I serve Putin, Shoigu must be judged and we will fight. on.”
In brief remarks at a meeting with colleagues on Wednesday, Mr. Shoigu offered no reaction to Mr. Prigozhin’s comments and said Russia would “respond swiftly and extremely harshly” to any further incursion by “Ukrainian militants.” “.
Many analysts and other observers marvel at Mr. Prigozhin’s regular diatribes against Russia’s elite in a tightly controlled society, and especially at his targeted criticism of Mr. Shoigu.
“He is playing a very dangerous game,” a wealthy Moscow-based businessman said of Mr Prigozhin in an interview with The New York Times in late March, requesting anonymity to discuss a prominent individual linked in the Kremlin. “If he doesn’t stop, he will end up like Aleksei Navalny.” Mr Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, is now in failing health in a penal colony.
But Wagner’s recent victory at Bakhmut after a grueling months-long battle gave political carte blanche to Mr. Prigozhin, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political scientist and Kremlin critic.
“You are given everything, permission to break the law, to break people out of jail without asking anyone’s permission, to kill these people if you don’t like them for discipline,” Mr Oreshkin said about of the terms of the agreement between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin. “If he hadn’t brought this victory, he would have been torn apart” by the elites he denigrates.
“For him, it was a matter of life or death.”
Milana Mazaeva contributed report.