While the Russian army stagnates, the Wagner mercenary group wants to rescue the war campaign in Ukraine

(CNN) — Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin is fighting his own war in eastern Ukraine, an often stark and increasingly vocal presence in Moscow’s faltering military campaign.

He presents himself and his group of Wagner mercenaries as the true patriots, in contrast to what he ridicules as a corrupt and incompetent military hierarchy. The tone is getting tougher and the stakes are getting higher.

In recent weeks, Prigozhin has been seen near the front lines in the occupied eastern Donetsk region, handing out oranges to troops or grimly going through body bags, speaking to his fighters in gritty and sometimes brutal language.

He rarely misses an opportunity to lash out at the ruling class. Somewhere in Donetsk last week, Prigozhin told his fighters: “Once we have beaten our internal bureaucracy and corruption, we will beat the Ukrainians and NATO… The problem now is that the bureaucrats and those who They engage in corruption, they don’t listen to us because on New Year’s they are all drinking champagne.”

For Prigozhin, the main bureaucrat he has in mind is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The two appear to have fallen out over lucrative military contracts awarded and later withdrawn to Prigozhin’s Concord Group, as well as Wagner’s controversial role in Syria.

The conflict in Ukraine has given Prigozhin the opportunity to expand the Wagner group and make it public property. Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel last week: “I created and run Wagner PMC. Therefore, the responsibility for any success or failure rests with me.”

Coming onto the scene in the fall of last year, Prigozhin has contrasted the raw courage of his fighters with Shoigu’s uninspiring leadership and military command. After the defeat at Kharkiv in September, when a swift Ukrainian counter-offensive forced a Russian withdrawal, Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel that the high command should be forced to fight “barefoot with machine guns on the front lines.”

Shoigu has not been seen on the front lines and has been widely criticized for the failures of Russia’s so-called “special military operation”. Russian military leaders faced unusually public criticism last week over the death of an unknown number of Russian troops in a rocket attack in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine.

Instead, Prigozhin has shown a populist streak with his bluster, even going so far as to mock Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky when he went to Bakhmut last month.

“Maybe at night we can meet,” he said on Telegram. “I am sitting, waiting for you near Bakhmut.”

Prigozhin has also responded to reports that Wagner would be designated a terrorist organization by the United States: “As the saying goes, put the dogs to sleep. Don’t wake Wagner PMC, Americans, while he’s still sleeping.”

off the records

Prigozhin and Wagner have played an unusual and informal role in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He has known the president since the 1990s; both are from St. Petersburg. He landed valuable contracts as a food supplier to the Kremlin and later created the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, whose mission was to interfere in the 2016 US election.

But Prigozhin – who reportedly served jail time in the 1980s – has always been the “anti-oligarch”, running his own mercenary operation in Syria and various African hot spots. Wagner hired former policemen, soldiers and adventurers, and combined training missions in places like the Central African Republic with efforts to win lucrative mining concessions. For Prigozhin, Wagner is a way to earn money and influence. For the Kremlin, these operations are a way of getting certain things done off the record.

Prigozhin is first of all a cunning opportunist. The war in the Ukraine has given him and Wagner the opportunity to raise their profile and bring to the fight an element that the Russian army seems to lack: effective infantry.

Wagner’s were the first Russian troops to enter the town of Popasna in the spring and then moved into Donetsk territory as Ukrainian troops withdrew over the summer to what are their current lines.

The Russian military has been unable to register any territorial gains in the past six months, so for Prigozhin to take Bakhmut or Soledar – two Donetsk towns that have been under attack for months – would be both a shiny prize and another opportunity to overshadow Shoigu. .

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Prigozhin said on Friday that it was “exclusively” his troops that had made alleged gains around Soledar in recent days. And he added: “Bajmut is the central point of the Eastern Front and an important logistics center. And our task is to die there as little as possible and to destroy the enemy as much as possible.”

In a recorded exchange with his fighters, Prigozhin provocatively asked: “Aside from Wagner PMC, who else is here?”

“No one else!” they replied.

(It may not be a coincidence that the Soledar area has huge reserves of gypsum, a mineral used in the production of fertilizers and plaster. Prigozhin’s African adventures have often sought to harness a military presence to control mineral wealth, and some mining operations Wagner in Syria have focused on valuable oil and gas fields).

Prigozhin’s ambitions have not gone unnoticed in Washington. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper told a briefing on Friday: “In recent times, we have seen Wagner advancing at a faster rate than any other unit in the Russian military.”

“His contract ended”

Wagner’s campaign is brutal and basic. Prigozhin and his lieutenants toured Russian prisons last year with a straightforward offer: fight in Ukraine for six months and get a pardon rather than re-enter. This unusual deal appears to have the approval of the Kremlin and has added more than 30,000 fighters to Wagner’s ranks, according to prisoner advocacy groups.

Prigozhin himself addressed a group of prisoners and said that Wagner did not allow alcohol, drugs or “sexual contacts with local women, flora, fauna and men, nothing”. In recent days, his own media have shown him meeting with former prisoners -among whose sentences is murder- that They say they have been “reborn” and they decided to sign up for another six months.

He said goodbye to others who were pardoned. “They fulfilled their contracts with honor, with dignity,” he said. And then, in typical vernacular fashion, he told them: “Don’t drink too much, don’t do drugs, and don’t rape any woman: either make love or pay for it.”

Prigozhin is not afraid of bad news and does not sugarcoat the Russian campaign. In a video released last week through his own outlet, FAN, he is seen going through black body bags stacked in an undisclosed location.

“They died heroically,” he said. But he, too, sounded brutally nonchalant, adding, “Their contract’s up, they’re going home next week.”

Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a fire after a shelling by the Russian army in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on December 7, 2022. (Credit: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a fire after a shelling by the Russian army in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on December 7, 2022. (Credit: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It is unknown how many Wagner fighters have been killed, but casualties number in the hundreds in what Ukrainians call Bakhmut’s “meat grinder.”

Surrounded by Wagner fighters, Prigozhin said earlier this month on Telegram that Ukrainian forces turned every house into a fortress. “So the boys fight for each house (…) sometimes they fight for weeks for just one house.”

“How many (Ukrainian) lines of defense are there? If we say 500, it would be more or less accurate, right?” Prigozhin added.

Russian state media recently began covering Prigozhin’s appearances at the front. The state-run RIA Novosti news agency published an exchange in which his men say they are short of vehicles, ammunition and armored personnel carriers.

Days later, Prigozhin’s Concord Group alleged in a statement that his media outlet Patriot had been asked to publish a negative article about him, without disclosing who had made the request. Through his press service, Prigozhin suggested that “people in uniform could be discrediting me. Mainly those close to the military. Because many of them cannot achieve the same efficiency as Wagner.”

He also lashed out at Russia’s wealthy elite again on the Concord Telegram channel: “The days of the oligarchs are numbered, because their negative impact on the future of Russia has been clearly demonstrated during the special operation. Some of them are at war , while others are buying real estate in Europe.”

Prigozhin’s very public campaign, framed by the lackluster performance of the Russian military, is not a challenge to Putin himself. In fact, the Russian leader may find it useful to have someone hot on the heels of military power. Prigozhin, along with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, has become Russia’s authorized troublemaker.

Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik notes that Prigozhin “is a private businessman who is highly dependent on how his relations with the authorities are structured. As a result, he is in a very vulnerable position.”

Stanovaya says it’s interesting that the governor of Russia’s Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, has just finished a basic training course with Wagner.

But Prigozhin’s ultimate goal is unclear: whether he is trying to wield serious political influence or simply furthering Wagner’s sometimes opaque agenda. That may depend on the fate of his fighters in the Donetsk region.

Josh Pennington and Darya Tarasova contributed to this report.

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