As the frontline Donbas city of Bakhmut has turned into the site of some of the fiercest fighting under way in Ukraine, tensions between the notorious Russian mercenary company, the Vagner Group, and the Russian military have spilled out into the open.
In the latest episode, Vagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin took aim at Russia’s military leadership and the stalling war effort in Ukraine days after an expletive-filled video surfaced of Vagner mercenaries near Bakhmut cursing out Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff of the armed forces, and complaining about a lack of ammunition in their battles against Ukrainian forces.
Several Russian media outlets and pro-war bloggers initially suggested that the video was a fake, featuring alleged “Ukrainian nationalists” dressed up as fighters in an attempt to undermine Russian resolve, but Prigozhin dispelled that theory during a December 27 message shared on the Telegram channel of Concord Management’s press service, which is owned by the Russian oligarch.
“There are no [Ukrainian] nationalists in that notorious video,” Prigozhin said in the audio message, before confirming that the men in the video are Vagner mercenaries and taking a shot at Russia’s military brass.
“The guys asked me to pass along that, when you’re sitting in a warm office, it’s hard to hear about the problems on the front line, but when you’re dragging the dead bodies of your friends every day and seeing them for the last time – then supplies are very much needed,” he said. “As for the problems that are unfortunately surfacing at every step…we will solve them and force them to be solved.”
The war of words is the latest in what many analysts see as a deepening rift under way between the military elite and Prigozhin amid Russia’s setbacks on the ground since its February 24 invasion that has seen Vagner take on an increasingly prominent role.
The Ukraine war has catapulted the mercenary group and Prigozhin into the international limelight, and Denis Korotkov – a journalist with the London-based Dossier Center, an investigative unit funded by exiled Kremlin critic and Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky – has followed Prigozhin’s rise and evolution over the years and broken several prominent stories about Vagner’s activities in the process.
In an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Korotkov offered his insights on Prigozhin's shifting position amid Russia’s elite, Vagner’s tense relationship with the Russian military, and the mercenary company’s prominence amid the war in Ukraine.
Vagner Group's New Role
“It doesn’t seem probable that such a video [like that issued by the Vagner mercenaries] would be broadcast without some form of consent from Prigozhin,” Korotkov said. “[Prigozhin] is looking for his place in this new reality that has come into existence after [the February invasion] and that has brought him into conflict with many powerful people.”
Sometimes known as “Putin’s chef” because his businesses catered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dinners with foreign guests, Prigozhin’s profile rose steadily in the years leading up to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The prominent oligarch was sanctioned and indicted by the United States for funding the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Vagner has also taken up important roles in Russian operations abroad, including in eastern Ukraine following the outbreak of fighting in 2014, in Syria after Moscow’s intervention, and in various countries across Africa.
The mercenary company has also left a trail of upheaval from its activities, with reports of the group being involved in diamond and gold smuggling, training and supplying foreign militaries, and unsolved deaths, including those of three Russian reporters from the Dossier Center who were murdered in 2018 while reporting on Vagner’s activities in the Central African Republic.
As Russia's conventional forces have reeled under pressure from a more motivated Ukrainian Army, Putin has reportedly turned to Vagner to take on a growing role, with the group playing an important part in Russia’s capture of Mariupol, Syevyerodonetsk, and now tasked with helping take Bakhmut.
Thousands of inmates are also believed to have joined the group in recent months, with videos surfacing of Prigozhin personally recruiting from prisons across Russia.
Korotkov says that the latest outburst from Prigozhin stems from ongoing frustration with the battle for Bakhmut, where Putin has placed a personal emphasis on taking the city amid heavy losses by both Russian and Ukrainian forces.
He adds that Vagner is still dependent on the Russian military for providing ammunition, and has found itself in increasingly short supply."
“There has been talk that Bakhmut is on the verge of falling [to Russia] for a long time, but there is no success,” Korotkov said. “Prigozhin’s behavior is not always well thought out and can be somewhat impulsive. We are seeing the beginning of that here.”
Prigozhin's Power Play
Formally outside of Russia’s military chain of command, Vagner was once a shadowy organization that the Kremlin denied any connection to, citing that private military companies (PMCs) are illegal in Russia.
But much of that has changed amid the war in Ukraine, with Prigozhin and his mercenary company assuming a more public position.
In early December, the Russian state media organization RT released a feature documentary called PMC Vagner – Contract With The Homeland, which glorified the mercenary group as patriots and alluded to Prigozhin gaining influence in Russia’s elite circles, where he is believed to have the ear of Putin himself.
Korotkov says that while Prigozhin’s access to Putin is rumored to have grown, the oligarch must still find other ways to communicate his positions and lobby for his agenda to the Russian president -- and doing so publicly has become Prigozhin’s preferred method.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on December 22 that Vagner took a delivery of arms from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. The claim was denied by Prigozhin, but Korotkov says that amid a tense fight in Bakhmut, the Vagner chief is looking to showcase his commitment to Russia’s war effort while also insulating himself from any blame for future setbacks on the battlefield.
“He is absolutely not an idiot,” Korotkov said. “He understands that a conclusion is drawing close [in Bakhmut], to one degree or another.”