The owner of the private military company Wagner accused Russia’s defence minister and chief of general staff on Tuesday of denying his fighters in Ukraine of ammunition, which he said amounts to an attempt to “destroy” the force.
Prigozhin, a millionaire with close ties to the Russian president, said in an audio statement released through his spokespeople that “direct resistance” from the Russian military “is nothing other than an attempt to destroy Wagner”.
The statements highlights long-brewing tensions between the Russian military and Wagner.
Prigozhin said in a raised voice that Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov are handing out orders “left and right” not to supply Wagner with ammunition and air transport. The company has been involved in heavy fighting in Bakhmut in the east of Ukraine.
This “can be likened to high treason in the very moment when Wagner is fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of its fighters every day”, Prigozhin said.
His battlefield claims could not be independently verified by news agencies.
The Russian defence ministry rejected his initial accusations about blocking ammunition as “absolutely untrue”.
It concluded: “Attempts to create a split in the tightknit machinery of cooperation and support between subdivisions of the Russian forces are counterproductive and only benefit the enemy.”
Who are the Wagner Group?
The Wagner private military company (also known as Wagner PMC) really took off in 2014.
Headed up and financed by Prigozhin, the covert group of mercenaries began showing up to support the Russian troops in unmarked green uniforms.
At the time, Wagner was so unknown they were nicknamed “little green men”.
Since then, it has grown exponentially, taking on thousands of soldiers who can come straight from elite backgrounds or prison.
Private military contractors are forbidden in Russia, so the whole group works outside of the country’s law.
That means this is a covert group of significant military force and political influence which – according to Vox – makes money by serving Moscow, and exploiting natural commodities in target countries.
Even Prigozhin denied any link to the group until September 2022 when he admitted he founded it.
What is its relationship with Putin?
For the best part of the last decade, the paramilitaries were not a problem for the Kremlin, or for Putin.
Prigozhin actually knows the Russian president, and was previously nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his expanse of catering companies which catered to the Kremlin.
And, the Wagner group extend Russia’s influence around the world, without Moscow ever being accountable for its actions.
For instance, it can deliver weapons and military services to countries with which Russia has a military technical agreement – such as in Africa, the Middle East as well as Ukraine – particularly those with an unstable government.
Putin publicly denied any connection to the group in February 2022, according to Reuters.
Things turned sour in January when Russia’s defence ministry claimed in January that it had managed to seize the Ukrainian town of Soledar, the first significant victory for Putin’s troops in months.
It did not mention Wagner.
Then Prigozhin, who has been vocal in his criticisms of the Russian army and claimed his own forces were the best in the world, issued a claim that Soledar had already fallen (even before it actually had).
He said the victory there was solely down to his troops.
He also accused the Russian ministry of “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory”, pushing Moscow to suddenly acknowledge the group’s “courageous and selfless action” on the battlefield.
Prigozhin and his fighters have been alleging for weeks that the military doesn’t provide them with enough ammunition. Wagner’s push to take over Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine’s partially occupied eastern Donetsk region, has stalled and turned into a grinding battle.
On Tuesday, in his long-anticipated state-of-the-nation address, Putin profusely thanked his military, but he made no mention of Wagner.