The leader of Russia’s Wagner private mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says Moscow’s plan to “demilitarize” Ukraine with its full-scale invasion has failed, instead turning its neighbor’s army into one of the “most powerful in the world” and setting Russia up for a possible uprising.
In an interview with pro-Kremlin political observer Konstantin Dolgov, the full version of which was published on May 24, Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, recalled that when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February last year the Kremlin called it “a special military operation to demilitarize and de-nazify Ukraine.”
Some 15 months later, the West has not tired of the war nor backed off its support of Ukraine, which has not only put up staunch resistance but is now preparing a counteroffensive, the Wagner chief said.
Prigozhin, 61, didn’t mince words in the interview, saying Russia’s military leadership had “f**ked up” many times during the war, leading to failures such as this week’s cross-border incursion into Russian territory by forces fighting against Russia and heavy troop losses, including some 20,000 Wagner troops during the monthslong fight for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
“Ukraine’s army now has a high level of organizational skills, a high level of training, a high level of intelligence. They have different types of weapons and, what is most important, they can easily and successfully work with all systems — Soviet, NATO systems, you name it,” said Prigozhin, who has at times bitterly complained about Russia’s defense apparatus failing to support his fighters, who have played a key role in the few victories claimed by Russia during the conflict.
Prigozhin’s frequent, bluntly worded press releases and unrestrained, profanity-laced criticism of senior Russian officials and military brass have become something of a personal trademark, prompting some to speculate the Kremlin-connected businessman harbors political ambitions that could even include challenging Putin.
In recent months, as his ostensibly private mercenary group has borne the brunt of the fierce fighting in and around Bakhmut, Prigozhin has stepped out into the limelight. His company has released videos showing him personally visiting prisons to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine and purportedly touring the battle-scarred streets of Bakhmut, sometimes with corpses littering the spaces behind him.
Although the gruesome videos have appalled most of the world, the sledgehammer image has become an integral part of the Prigozhin brand and, more importantly, symbolic of the brutal shift that Russian political culture has undergone since Putin invaded Ukraine.
In the interview, Prigozhin reiterated his previous criticism of the country’s main defense officials, accusing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Valery Gerasimov of unprofessionalism and corruption that led to troop losses in Ukraine.
Prigozhin also criticized Shoigu and Russia’s elite for allowing their children to evade mobilization and “enjoy life and have fun in Dubai and elsewhere,” suggesting the war in Ukraine could lead to “what happened in 1917” in Russia, meaning a mass mutiny by soldiers and their refusal to take part in the World War I that led to the Russian Revolution.
“We are at such a point that we could f**king lose Russia — that is the main problem…. We need to impose martial law,” he said, concluding that the “scenario for us will not be good, and that is why need to get ready for an arduous war.”