Speed Reads

Mixed Messages

Wagner militia chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claims victory over Russia's military brass after revelatory fight

As Russia marks the first anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving speeches highlighting Russian unity it its war effort — and Wagner paramilitary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin has been underscoring the evident divisions.

On Monday, Prigozhin — Wagner's financier and public face, previously known best as "Putin's chef" — obliquely blamed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukraine war commander Gen. Valery Gerasimov for stonewalling his requests for ammunition. He dialed up the attack on Tuesday, explicitly accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of "handing out commands right and left, that the Wagner PMC should not receive ammunition," which "can be equated to high treason now when Wagner PMC are fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of their fighters every day."

Russia's Defense Ministry denied Prigozhin's ammunition-starving allegation and said such charges only aided Russia's enemies by damaging national unity. Prigozhin called that response "an attempt to hide their crimes."

Prigozhin posted a photo Wednesday of a room full of corpses he said were dead Wagner fighters — CNN called it "one of the strangest PR campaigns in memory" — and claimed "all these guys died yesterday because of this so-called ammunition hunger." He added that "there should have been five times fewer dead" and blamed Gerasimov and Shoigu by name.

On Thursday, he claimed victory, saying the requested ammunition was on the way.

"In the opaque world of the Russian military, it is impossible to know if his troops got the ammunition, or if the Kremlin lost patience and told him to play nice," The New York Times reports. Either way, The Washington Post adds, Prigozhin's public outburst "exposed what the Russian president refused to admit: His war is flagging, and key players in the Kremlin's orbit are now at each other's throats."

Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows last summer, publicly recruiting Wagner shock troops from Russian prisons, offering them pardons from Putin if they served six-month contracts fighting in Ukraine. The convicts made up about 40,000 of the 50,000 mercenaries Wagner has sent to Ukraine, according to U.S. estimates, and the bulk of the 30,000 Wagner soldiers killed or wounded as they led near-suicidal assaults to weaken entrenched Ukrainian forces.

Before his outburst on ammunition supplies, Prigozhin complained that the Defense Ministry had erased Wagner from Russia's advances in Soledar and Bakhmut. Putin did not mention Wagner in his speeches this week.