Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the mercenary company Wagner, has accused Russia’s top military leaders of high treason after alleging they held back much-needed ammunition for the fight in Ukraine and declined to provide air support.
Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is spearheading the battle for the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.
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“There is simply direct opposition going on [to attempts to equip Wagner fighters]. This can be equated to high treason,” Prigozhin said in a voice message posted on his Telegram channel on Tuesday.
“The chief of the general staff and the defence minister are giving orders right and left, not just not to give Wagner PMC [private military company] ammunition but not to help it with air transport.”
Prigozhin has been one of defence minister Sergey Shoigu’s most fiery critics, insisting his own men are far more effective than the regular army. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov was appointed last month to run the war in Ukraine.
His voice rising to a shout, Prigozhin accused the military brass of deciding “people should die when it’s convenient for them”, and said Wagner fighters were “dropping like flies” in the absence of necessary supplies.
Senior officials also declined Wagner’s requests for special spades to dig trenches, he added.
Prigozhin, a catering tycoon who used his wealth to build a private army, has assumed a more public role since the start of the war in Ukraine a year ago.
He has revelled in being sanctioned by the West, publicly insulted Russia’s top military commanders, tried to parlay battlefield success into political influence, and detailed his recruitment of convicts for Wagner’s ranks.
Prigozhin has also forged an informal alliance with fellow hardliners including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and accused the defence ministry of trying to take credit for Wagner’s successes in eastern Ukraine.
But his star appears to be waning. He was stripped this year of the right to recruit prisoners amid signs of a Kremlin move to curb his influence.
Russias defence ministry denied limiting ammunition shipments to volunteers at the front but made no mention of the Wagner force.
“Attempts to create a split within the close mechanism of interaction and support between units of the Russian [fighting] groups are counterproductive and work solely to the benefit of the enemy,” the ministry said in a statement later on Tuesday.
Alexey Muraviev, a Russia expert at Curtin University in Australia, told Al Jazeera that Prigozhin is seeking to secure military contracts from the Russian government.
“Clearly, it [criticism] is happening at a time when the Kremlin is readjusting its strategy in Ukraine, and Prigozhin wants a major slice of this cake. Effectively, he wants to monopolise Russia’s operations in Ukraine by saying, ‘I want it all. Give me what I need.'”
‘Get rid of nonsense’
It was the second such message directed at defence officials published by Prigozhin in two days.
In an obscenity-peppered message on Monday, he complained unnamed officials were denying Wagner supplies out of personal animosity to him, and he was required to “apologise and obey” in order to rectify the situation.
The defence ministry has previously said Wagner is not under its control even though the militia depends on the state for some arms and logistics.
Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik political consultancy, said Prigozhin’s outburst on Monday looked like “an act of desperation” aimed at “getting through to Putin”.
It was not clear whether he had Prigozhin in mind but Putin in a speech on Tuesday said he wanted an end to infighting.
“We must get rid of – I want to emphasise this – any interdepartmental contradictions, formalities, grudges, misunderstandings, and other nonsense,” Putin told the political and military elite.
In a separate post, Prigozhin said later on Tuesday he had been too busy to watch Putin’s speech and could therefore not comment on the president’s remarks regarding Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.