“We could f**king lose Russia” – thus the Wagner Group’s financier in an extraordinary interview with a Russian military blogger, 15 months after the invasion of Ukraine and four days after claiming to have taken Bakhmut with fighters drawn largely from Russia’s prisons. Yevgeny Prigozhin said Russia’s top politicians and military commanders had “f**ked up” many times during the war, and it’s hard to disagree. Most recently a cross-border incursion by a group calling itself the “Russian volunteers’ Legion” encircled a garrison town where nuclear weapons were reportedly stored and attacked the local FSB and the Interior Ministry offices with drones. The local governor said he had “a lot of questions” for the defence ministry; the Kremlin was “deeply concerned”.
Frank talk. Prigozhin told the pro-Kremlin blogger Konstantin Dolgov that
- the “denazification” and “de-militarisation” of Ukraine, announced by Putin as the main goals of the war have failed; and
- Russia has instead made Ukraine a “world-famous country” with more up-to-date weapons and a better-trained army than at the beginning of the invasion.
“If at the beginning they had, say, 500 tanks – now they’ve got 5,000 tanks,” he said. “If earlier 20,000 people could fight professionally – now 400,000 can. So, we did not demilitarise Ukraine but militarised it”.
Credit due. Repeating his claim to have taken Bakhmut, Prigozhin paid extravagant tribute to Ukraine’s armed forces: “We have fought in many places and…. I have to say that Ukrainians are one of the strongest armies in the world,” he said.
He complimented Ukraine’s army on its organisation, training, intelligence – and ability to work with the multiple different weapons systems being provided by its Western allies. “They can easily and successfully work with all systems – Soviet, Nato systems, you name it.”
Double down. Not for the first time but in stark contrast to most Russian voices on the war, Prigozhin did not appear to censor himself for fear of repercussions. He said his fighters alone had lost 20,000 killed in action, but far from running up a white flag, he said Russia now has to do three things to survive:
- Impose the martial law
- Live a few years “like North Korea”, putting all its efforts to a war economy
- Get ready for an “arduous war”.
Otherwise, he said, a coup reminiscent of 1917 might be initiated by soldiers and supported by those who have lost relatives in this war.
Prigozhin foresees a “pessimistic scenario for Russia”, including Ukrainian counterattacks in the East and on Crimea, and attempts to destroy the Kerch bridge and cut supply lines on the mainland.
Of last year’s disastrous start to the invasion he said: “We crapped our pants and retreated.” How long Putin will let him articulate such views remains to be seen.
Wagner’s war: A year in Ukraine and beyond
First they were known as the “little green men”, an anonymous private Russian force appearing first in Crimea, then Syria, then in central Africa. Now, they are on the frontline of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Just how powerful is the Wagner Group and their increasingly vocal founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin?