For nearly a year, Russia has waged a fierce battle to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, seeking a gain after months of embarrassing battlefield setbacks.
Although the city has essentially been razed to the ground, seizing it and ending the longest battle of the war would be a political, albeit pyrrhic, victory for Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner paramilitary group, whose mercenaries have led the assault on Bakhmut.
For Prigozhin, capturing the city seems to have become a personal obsession, so much so that one facet of the battle’s legacy will be the bizarre public spat it sparked between him, the man once known as “Putin’s chef,” and the Defense Ministry. Russian.
Prigozhin is an oligarch who amassed his wealth in part through obtaining catering contracts from the Kremlin, hence the nickname “chef.” His notorious Wagner mercenary force has wielded influence on behalf of Moscow in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique, and is now a crucial force fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine, though Prigozhin publicly acknowledged their connection. to Wagner only in September.
Since then, he has built an aggressive presence on social media, portraying himself and his forces as more ruthless and effective fighters than the Russian military, and denouncing Moscow’s defense bureaucracy, all despite his close alliance with the Russian military. President Vladimir V. Putin.
Prigozhin’s sharp accusations about the competence of the Russian defense ministry, coupled with the advances of his fighters in the bitter battle for Bakhmut, transformed him from a once-reserved figure into a political power player on the public stage.
The discord between Prigozhin and Russian defense officials became increasingly exposed as the anniversary of the war approached in February.
Back then, Mr. Prigozhin’s group of mercenaries was losing the ability to replenish their ranks. The large numbers of troops, some of which Prigozhin recruited from prisons, had fueled Wagner’s repeated offensives on Bakhmut. But news of Wagner’s astronomical casualty rate was spreading to Russian penal colonies, and Prigozhin announced in early February that he would stop recruiting inmates, without giving a reason.
Not long after, he targeted figures close to the top of Russia’s command structure, accusing the country’s defense minister and top general of treason in vitriolic and profanity-laden audio messages on social media.
Mr. Prigozhin claimed that military officials were deliberately withholding ammunition and supplies from Wagner’s fighters in Bakhmut to undermine him, while, he said, Russian forces elsewhere faced failure after failure.
According to a classified US intelligence document leaked online in April, the dispute escalated so badly that Putin got personally involved, summoning Prigozhin and Russia’s defense minister Sergei K. Shoigu to a meeting that it is believed to have taken place on February 22. “It is almost certain that the meeting referred, at least in part, to Prigozhin’s public accusations and the resulting tension with Shoygu,” the document says, using an alternate transliteration of the minister’s name.
Since then, the public intensity of the dispute has fluctuated. Prigozhin eventually said his fighters in Bakhmut received the ammunition they needed, and in April the Russian Defense Ministry made a rare acknowledgment of its cooperation, saying Russian paratroop units were covering Wagner’s flanks in the western part. from the city.
But over the course of just three weeks in May, Prigozhin again accused the Russian military bureaucracy of depriving Wagner’s forces of the ammunition they needed to fully capture Bakhmut, this time threatening to withdraw them from the city on May 10. ; he appeared to backtrack two days later, as he had before, this time saying that he had received satisfactory promises of more arms; he undermined the Russian army’s claims of a partial “regrouping” of his forces in the city by declaring it a “defeat”; he denied a report that he had offered to betray Russian army locations around Bakhmut if Kyiv agreed to withdraw from the area; and on Saturday he declared that Bakhmut was completely under Wagner’s control.
Kyiv quickly denied the latest claim. In a reflection of how the public spat has exposed flaws in the typically impenetrable world of the Russian military, Moscow has so far remained silent.