It was a remarkable transformation. Almost a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the head of Russia’s largest mercenary group, who has long denied ties to the military, has become something of a public face of Moscow’s war effort.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company Wagner, has come to exemplify Kremlin outsiders challenging traditional Russian elites, highlighting how Moscow’s failures in Ukraine are changing the country’s power structure, analysts say.
In recent months, Mr. Prigozhin has sought to position himself as the Kremlin’s indispensable military leader, even as he has stepped up his criticism of Russia’s defense ministry. He has bolstered Russia’s ravaged fighting ranks with tens of thousands of prisoners recruited into his mercenary forces, been awarded medals, visited war cemeteries and, according to his frequent videos, made unexpected appearances in the most difficult sections of the front line.
This week, Mr. Prigozhin presented himself as the mastermind behind what he described as Russia’s biggest military success in months: a breakthrough in the eastern Ukrainian city of Soledar.
In full combat gear, Mr. Prigozhin appeared surrounded by his fighters in what he claims are the salt mines below Soledar, according to photos released Tuesday night by Russian state news agencies and social media linked to Wagner. Mr. Prigogine claims that the city is entirely under his control and takes all the credit for the apparent success.
“No forces other than PMC Wagner fighters took part in the attack on Soledar,” Mr Prigozhin said in an audio message posted on the Telegram messaging app, using a Russian acronym for private military companies.
Ukraine disputed his claim of total victory, saying on Wednesday that fighting continued in the western part of the city.
It should be noted that Mr. Prigozhin’s claims have also been denied by the Kremlin and the Russian military. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that its regular units were “fighting in the city”, and Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that the capture of Soledar would be an important but costly tactical success rather than a turning point. .
It was just the latest sign of tension between Wagner and Russia’s armed forces, which analysts say shows there is a battle for favor with President Vladimir V. Putin as the military outlook in Ukraine darkens.
At the end of December, Wagner’s fighters were released video full of profanity addressed to the high military command accusing him of withholding ammunition and causing the death of their comrades. Mr Prigogine responded to the video by saying: “When you’re sitting in a warm office, frontline problems are hard to hear,” apparently referring to the generals.
And last week, a prominent Telegram news channel associated with Mr. Prigozhin, called Gray Zone, discredits the Defense Department’s claim that he killed 600 Ukrainian servicemen in an airstrike by posting pictures of an intact building that was supposed to have been destroyed.
Mr. Prigozhin’s attempts to take credit for the victory in Soledar show his growing political ambition and underscore how Kremlin outsiders are challenging Mr. Putin’s traditional circle after the setbacks in Ukraine, said Abbas Galyamov, a former presidential speechwriter who has cut ties with him.
Mr. Galyamov said Mr. Prigozhin was trying to replace Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, a longtime confidant of Mr. Putin whom many Russian ultranationalists blame for the military disasters in Ukraine.
“Putin now depends so much on how effective his army will be that when he chooses a new minister, he will think about nothing but how to increase that effectiveness,” Mr Galyamov wrote in a Facebook post. “I thought the appointment of Prigozhin as a minister was crazy, but lately so much has been happening in our country that you can’t rule anything out.
Oleg Matsnev contributed research.
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