Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian mercenary army the Wagner Group, reportedly confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over the mismanagement of Russia’s combat operations in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has been heavily involved in Russian combat efforts in Ukraine and some observers believe his influence in Russian politics is growing.
The Daily Express reported on Saturday, based on U.S. intelligence claims, that the Wagner Group’s leader raised issue with Russia’s handling of the war in Ukraine when he confronted Putin face-to-face. The Daily Express reported their meeting was “tense” and significant enough to warrant mention in one of President Joe Biden’s recent daily intelligence briefings.
In their meeting, Prigozhin reportedly criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin has reportedly been calling for Putin to replace Shoigu and give his mercenary forces more funding in Ukraine.
While Prigozhin reportedly confronted Putin specifically about Shoigu’s handling of the war effort, some Russia observers believe the mercenary leader could be trying to usurp Putin’s own political power.
In an Oct. 24 report, the U.S.-based military think-tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed “Prigozhin continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces.” The think-tank said Prigozhin’s influence could “pose a threat to Putin’s rule — at least within the information space.”
ISW said “Prigozhin holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space” and “can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.”
ISW assessed that Putin has become increasingly dependent on Wagner Group forces, to the point that Prigozhin has boasted that regular Russian forces are hiding behind his mercenaries to feel safe. The think-tank said Putin is likely “attempting to appease Prigozhin despite the fact that Prigozhin is undermining the conventional Russian military.”
Last month, Prigozhin and Chechen paramilitary commander Ramzan Kadyrov both openly criticized regular Russian military commanders in Ukraine. In a Telegram post, Kadyrov accused Russian military commanders of failing to provide their troops with appropriate communications and supplies and said regular Russian forces had to retreat. Prigozhin was then quoted by one of his own company’s as having responded, “Kadyrov’s expressive statement, of course, is not at all in my style, but I can say…. send all those bastards barefoot, with machine guns, to the front.”
More recently, Wagner Group forces have reportedly led Russian efforts to capture the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
Russian affairs and foreign policy analyst Samuel Ramani told the Daily Express that Putin “needs the optics of some kind of an offensive victory to assuage critics at home and to show the Russian public that this war is still going to plan.”