(NEW YORK) — The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said the Kremlin’s justifications for its invasion of Ukraine are based on lies, in another extraordinary attack on the country’s military and political leadership.
Prigozhin, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a video posted Friday contradicted the public explanations for the war, including the central claim made by Putin that the 2022 invasion was necessary to prevent an attack from Ukraine.
Since launching the war, Putin has painted it as a defensive operation to protect Russia. He’s claimed it was needed to stop imminent large-scale attacks from Ukraine on Russian-speaking eastern regions in Donbas that Russia has occupied since 2014.
But in his video address, Prigozhin, whose fighters have played a leading role in the war, said that was not true and there had been no imminent risk of attack from Ukraine.
“The ministry of defense now is trying to deceive society, the president, and tell a story there was insane aggression from Ukraine and that they intended to attack us with the whole NATO bloc,” Prigozhin said.
“The Special Military Operation that began on Feb. 24 was started for completely different reasons,” he said.
Prigozhin has been in a public feud with Russia’s defense ministry and its head Sergey Shoigu for months, blaming them for Russia’s disastrous prosecution of the war. As Russia has faced deepening setbacks in Ukraine, he has become an unexpected, prominent critic of Russia’s leadership, using social media to post almost daily video updates excoriating it as incompetent, but stopping short of directly criticizing Putin.
Prigozhin also said in Friday’s video that the two goals Putin announced at the start of the war — the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine — were “pretty stories.”
Instead, he blamed Shoigu, the defense ministry and a “clan of oligarchs” for starting the war. He accused Shoigu of seeking glory and wanting “to rob” Ukraine and divide up its assets.
Prigozhin’s attacks are extraordinary in Russia, where public criticism of the authorities risks harsh punishment. Since the war began last year, criticism of the military leadership has become a criminal offense.
That has led to speculation among experts about why Prigozhin is enjoying such license. Some observers have suggested Prigozhin might be speaking with the tacit approval of the Kremlin, which may be looking to shift blame for the war from Putin by scapegoating other figures such as Shoigu.
Prigozhin did not directly attack Putin in the video, instead claiming the president was being deceived by his generals and other figures around him. However, Putin has made the claims around Donbas and de-Nazification the central justifications of the war.
The implicit picture Prigozhin gave of Putin as weak and out of touch was also remarkable, implying he was manipulated by a clan of wealthy businessmen around him and lied to by his military. The war, as described by Prigozhin, was not about protecting Russia or resisting NATO expansion, but instead greed.
“The war was needed by oligarchs,” Prigozhin said. “It was needed by that clan that today practically rule Russia.” He added Russia’s “sacred war” had “turned into a racket.”
Prigozhin lambasted Russia’s military leadership for the huge casualties its troops have suffered. He accused Shoigu of hollowing out the armed forces under Putin through corruption and cronyism, crippling its ability to fight effectively and then catastrophically botching the invasion after believing it would be an easy victory.
“There is a total absence of management,” Prigozhin said, calling Shoigu a “weak grandfather.”
“Someone should answer for the lives of those soldiers,” Prigozhin said in Friday’s video.
Prigozhin this week has accused the defense ministry of once again presenting a falsely upbeat picture of how Russia is fending off Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Russia’s military has claimed to have largely stymied the counteroffensive and inflicted heavy losses on Ukraine.
Putin himself has trumpeted those alleged successes, repeating claims Ukraine has suffered heavy losses of Western equipment.
But Prigozhin has said in Russia’s position is far more difficult, as Ukraine presses attacks at two points on the Zaporizhzhia front in the south.
“On the ground now, today, the Russian army is retreating on the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions,” Prigozhin said in Friday’s video.
He added that Ukrainian forces were advancing “deeper and deeper and deeper into our defenses” around Bakhmut, which his Wagner forces helped capture weeks ago.
“The leadership of the ministry of defense is thoroughly deceiving the president, and the president is receiving reports that don’t correspond with reality in any way,” Prigozhin said.
“Two agendas are forming—one on the ground, the other on the president’s table,” he said.
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