'Loud mouth' Prigozhin's public feuding with Russia's military leaders is an effort to blame the Kremlin for Wagner's failures in Bakhmut, military expert says

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of his fighters at the Beloostrovskoye cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 24, 2022.AP Photo
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia's military brass have been locked in a public feud for months

  • Meanwhile, Prigozhin's Wagner Group troops have sustained significant losses in Bakhmut.

  • Experts told Insider that Prigozhin's taunts and tirades are likely an attempt to set the narrative.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, has publicly escalated his feud with Russia's military brass in recent weeks, shaming the country's defense leaders and threatening to withdraw his troops from the frontline, all in an attempt to paint himself in a flattering light, military experts posited.

Prigozhin, a one-time close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, oversees the mercenary Wagner Group, which sparked global outrage earlier in the war after offering convicted prisoners a chance at freedom in exchange for their fighting in Ukraine, and the rouge wartime leader has been increasingly desperate for a victory after sustaining significant losses this year.

"I think Prigozhin is playing a political, as well as a military game," Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations, told Insider.

Wagner troops have played an outsized role in the battle of Bakhmut, Russia's monthslong assault in Ukraine's east where the fighting has grown so ruthless it has become known as "the meat grinder."

For months, Wagner troops have borne the brunt of the attritional fighting in Bakhmut as the frontlines grinded to a brutal stalemate. The White House in February said Wagner troops had suffered 30,000 casualties since the war began in February 2022.

Prigozhin's forces have been wounded and killed at such stunning rates that Russia has been forced to supplement traditional forces to make up for the losses in Bakhmut.

"Prigozhin has spent the last seven to eight months trying to capture Bakhmut and still hasn't done it," Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former commander of US Army Europe, told Insider earlier this month.

Ukraine continues to defend the strategically unimportant city and even managed to reclaim several miles of territory last week, sending Russian soldiers fleeing from armored vehicles.

"All the resources that have been expended, the lives lost around Bakhmut, and for what?" Hodges said of Wagner's efforts.

The animosity between Prigohzin and Russia's military leaders, who do not directly command Wagner troops, has been growing for months, with Prigozhin sharing graphic videos of dead Wagner soldiers in Bakhmut while castigating Russia's military brass, alleging that they've been withholding necessary ammunition from his men.

In recent weeks, Prigozhin has even taken to shaming Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov by name, the current leaders of Russia's war effort whom Prigozhin "clearly hates with a passion," said Miles.

A mural depicting Russia's Wagner Group that reads: "Wagner Group - Russian knights."
A mural depicting mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group that reads: "Wagner Group - Russian knights."AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Prigozhin seems to care very little about Russia's overall war effort

In the most brazen escalation yet of Prigozhin's apparent vendetta against Russia's military brass, the Wagner leader reportedly offered to give the locations of Russian troops to Ukraine defense officials in exchange for sparing his for-hire army in Bakhmut, according to leaked intelligence documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Prigozhin has since denied the accusations, but Miles told Insider that the timing of the alleged offer makes sense with regard to his desperation for a win.

"Wagner being in a position to claim the lion's share of credit would have been a real coup for Prigozhin," he said. "And it would have been a blow to Shoigu and Gerasimov, who I think have been entirely happy to let Wagner grind itself down in Bakhmut to try to diminish the Prigozhin problem."

An expert on Russian security and politics told Insider this week that Prigozhin's alleged attempt to sell out Russia for his own gain is akin to treason and indicates a genuine threat to Putin's leadership.

"I'm sure this is extremely frustrating to Putin, but he built this system of divide-and-rule himself," Miles said. "This is the logical consequence."

And indeed, reports from earlier this year suggest Russia was perfectly happy to allow Wagner troops to suffer in Bakhmut and sustain the majority of blows during the fighting, even looking at the assault as an opportunity to wipe the group — and its leader — off the map.

"I think they probably hate [Prigozhin] because he's such a loud mouth," Hodges said of Russia's defense leaders.

The ongoing and chaotic infighting with Russia's forces comes as Ukraine prepares to launch a much-anticipated counteroffensive, though evidence suggests Prigozhin is not particularly concerned with the war beyond his personal stakes in Bakhmut.

"All the stuff he says so publicly, my guess is that is mainly him wanting to create a narrative that it's not his fault they have failed in Bakhmut," Hodges said.

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