Just as the Wagner Group appears on track to bring Moscow its first battlefield win in Ukraine in months, founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has released a nearly four-minute video apparently issuing a veiled threat to the Kremlin.
Unlike a video released a day earlier, in which Prigozhin gleefully boasted that Wagner was on the brink of victory in Bakhmut, this time he spoke solemnly in a dark room to warn of the bloody consequences for Russia if his men were to now “retreat.”
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” he said.
“The situation will be unpleasant for all military formations protecting Russia’s interests,” he added, claiming the [Russian] army would be “forced to stabilize the front” while “Crimea falls” and there would be “many other cataclysms.”
Predicting that Wagner would be scapegoated for Russia losing the war, he said mercenaries under his command would know exactly who to blame for the betrayal. “And this is exactly the problem with ammunition hunger. … Regular fighters… They will come and say, ‘Boss, could it be that this story is being played up somewhere deep in the Defense Ministry, or maybe higher, in order to explain to the Russian people why we ended up in this trouble? What if they want to set us up and say we are villains, and that’s why we aren’t given ammo and weapons and allowed to reinforce personnel, including convicts?”
Apparently trying to drill home the message that Wagner—and not Russia’s regular army—was the one keeping the Kremlin’s war machine afloat, Prigozhin repeatedly described his mercenaries as the “cement” holding the whole war effort together “at the very top.”
It was not clear if his message was meant as an ultimatum to strong-arm defense officials into sending Wagner the help Prigozhin has repeatedly alleged the Defense Ministry is deliberately withholding. Or if it was simply a demand for the mercenary group to get credit for its ruthless performance on the battlefield.
While Prigozhin is long said to have had President Vladimir Putin’s ear, there have been growing signs in recent weeks that he’s now become a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
His simmering feud with top Russian military brass erupted last month into him publicly accusing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of committing “treason” by trying to “destroy” Wagner, supposedly because they were jealous that the shadowy group had outshined regular troops on the battlefield.
He suggested they were also to blame for Wagner having been sidelined from recruiting convicts for the war effort.
But the Kremlin so far has stood by its own military brass and omitted Wagner from its announcements about the state of the war. And some close to Prigozhin reportedly fear that his power grab might dramatically backfire. One unnamed source in his circle told the Financial Times late last month, “There’s a risk he could end up like Icarus.”