The months-long siege of Bakhmut may have been a costly battlefield victory for the Wagner Group, but the private military company’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, scored a major political win by capturing the city.
The Wagner Group is now responsible for Russia’s only two significant victories since last summer, having taken Bakhmut last weekend and the nearby town of Soledar in January.
Prigozhin, whose public profile has raised significantly in the last year, also made a point of belittling Russia’s leadership while taking Bakhmut.
Throughout the battle, he criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the commander overseeing the war in Ukraine, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. In profanity-laced rants, he accused both of failing in the war effort and not supplying enough ammunition to troops.
Those attacks increased this week during a more than hourlong interview in which he ripped into Russian elites, criticized how the war has been conducted and speculated on the possibility of a revolution to overthrow elitist power.
Prigozhin also singled out Shoigu for allegedly protecting his son-in-law from the war, criticizing him for traveling to the United Arab Emirates with the defense minister’s daughter.
“This should not be happening,” Prigozhin said. “I recommend the elites of the Russian Federation to gather up your offspring and send them to war.”
Some military analysts believe the Wagner chief is telegraphing his ambition of placing his own people in power within the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Other analysts believe Prigozhin is setting himself up as a populist leader who is critical of Russian elites, possibly with a larger aim to one day replace 70-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All agree that Prigozhin wants to be compensated for his work and could reap huge rewards from the war — if not politically, then financially, with multiple lucrative options in Ukrainian territory, such as salt mines around Bakhmut.
Mathieu Boulégue, a consulting fellow with the Center for European Analysis (CEPA), said Prigozhin is a “clever political engineer” and could become a danger to Putin because of his status as a “systemic weight on the unfolding of the war.”
“It’s a very dangerous game,” said Boulégue. “The more he becomes a sort of spearhead for all the dirty work and operations that the Russian forces cannot accomplish any longer, the more he can try to extort potential concessions.”
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