RIGA, Latvia — Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s threat to pull his forces from Bakhmut, relayed in obscenity-ridden videos in which he blames Russian military chiefs for the deaths of tens of thousands of his soldiers in Ukraine, was only the latest salvo in a months-long feud between the mercenary group and Russia’s military leadership for influence in the war and glory on the battlefield.
While Prigozhin has led Russia’s bloody campaign to capture the eastern Ukrainian city using soldiers of fortune and recently freed convicts, he’s also been locked in a public fight with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who he says have denied his forces ammunition and manpower.
Previously unreported U.S. intelligence documents allegedly leaked by National Guard airman Jack Teixeira on the Discord platform indicate that the military leadership struggled to respond to Prigozhin, and the outspoken Wagner chief appealed personally to President Vladimir Putin to intervene.
His rants suggest that his pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and the threat to abandon the fight in Bakhmut — the longest, fiercest battle in the war — are a last-ditch effort to cling to a prominent role in the invasion.
It’s unclear if it will work. Prigozhin set May 10 as the deadline for the withdrawal of his fighters.
Prigozhin made similar accusations in February, voicing complaints about a shortage of ammunition in interviews with pro-war military bloggers on Telegram and then posting a photo of what he said was a pile of dead mercenaries and blaming army chiefs for inadequate supplies.
The leaked documents indicate that Russia’s military leadership was frustrated by Prigozhin’s bitter public attacks, and debated how to quash his criticism.
Defense Ministry officials considered launching a public campaign to discredit Prigozhin through a proxy, according to the documents.
“The officials initially noted that, if the MoD was going to try to counter Prigozhin’s public statements, they should find allies of equal status to fight Prigozhin rather than doing so itself,” stated one document, labeled top secret. “However, they were ultimately unsure how the MoD could successfully fight an information war with Prigozhin if the Russian government did not forbid Prigozhin from making public releases.”
The document indicated the information was based on a “signals intelligence report,” meaning it was acquired by intercepting or eavesdropping on communications.
In a rare public response on Feb. 21, the Defense Ministry denied that it was deliberately starving “volunteers,” the word officials use for mercenaries, which are outlawed in Russia. Without naming Prigozhin, the ministry said statements to the contrary were attempts “to split the close mechanism of interaction and support between the divisions of the Russian group.”
Wagner has covertly advanced Moscow’s interests around the world for the past nine years. But during that time, Prigozhin, who earned a fortune and the nickname “Putin’s chef” from government catering contracts, has fallen in and out of favor with the Russian leader and his inner circle.
Russia’s early failures in the war in Ukraine offered the mercenary leader a chance to become a national power player by coming to Moscow’s rescue with his private army.
While Russian forces blundered, Wagner scored some modest but highly publicized wins, earning the group a spotlight on national television and Prigozhin a boost in influence. With his growing political profile came emboldened attacks on army leaders and regional authorities in his hometown of St. Petersburg.
Since January, Prigozhin has claimed that Russian state media have been instructed to avoid quoting him or mentioning Wagner, a departure from last year’s glowing coverage praising the group’s role in what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Prigozhin maintains his own small media empire of websites and Telegram channels that amplify his voice among the war’s most fervent supporters. State news agencies on Friday described his threatened pullback as a planned rotation at the front line.
Prigozhin also complained that the Russian Defense Ministry was “stealing Wagner’s victories” by claiming that regular forces had won gains near Bakhmut.
For a time, Prigozhin was allowed to berate officials with seeming impunity, which analysts noted fit with Putin’s strategy of splitting political turf and the battlefield in Ukraine into separate fiefs controlled by rival groups so that none grow too powerful.
But while that might serve to protect Putin, it has proven disastrous on the battlefield.
“Wagner and Prigozhin have always represented a unity of command problem in this war,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Putin likes to use competing factions as a way to maintain power but that is very damaging in a military operation.”
As Prigozhin grew more prominent, and more bitter and personal in his attacks, a loose cannon in an otherwise tight-lipped Russian power elite, the military appeared to sideline him. First, they banned him from recruiting from the prison population, which had helped Wagner amass a 50,000-strong force by the end of last year.
Then, as Prigozhin claims, they deprived his units of ammunition. His hastily trained conscripts were sent directly to the front lines in Bakhmut, and ordered into battle against punishing waves of Ukrainian artillery and machine gun fire.
“For tens of thousands of those killed and wounded in front of their mothers and children, [Shoigu and Gerasimov] will be held accountable, and I will make sure this happens,” Prigozhin said in a video on Friday, admitting vast losses that contradict Moscow’s official numbers but are in line with Western intelligence estimates.
The leaked documents note that military officials “could not decisively” say whether Wagner was receiving munitions because they were not distributed directly from the ministry but through a task force in Bakhmut — an acknowledgment that “Prigozhin’s claims could be legitimate.”
Separately, officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, later determined that Wagner’s requests were met — but not in full — during the first half of February, the documents said.
On Feb. 12, one document stated, Gerasimov “reportedly ordered to stop munitions supplies … and also planned military transport flights, which were set to transport munitions” to Wagner’s headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city close to the Ukrainian border.
But as Prigozhin’s rhetoric escalated, Defense Ministry officials “proposed doubling the munitions supply to Wagner” and wanted to “release public messaging” around that effort. On Feb. 21, the ministry said Prigozhin’s claims were untrue. Prigozhin clapped back the next morning by posting the picture of the dead soldiers and a request for munitions address to Gerasimov dated Feb. 17.
Prigozhin is believed to have been called into a meeting with Putin and Shoigu on or around Feb. 22, the day he posted the picture of the dead soldiers, the documents indicate.
“The meeting almost certainly concerned, at least in part, Prigozhin’s public accusations and resulting tension with Shoygu,” one document read, using an alternative spelling of the defense minister’s last name.
Before that meeting, the document said, Prigozhin claimed that he pleaded with Putin in mid-February to allow him to continue tapping into Russia’s vast prison population to replenish Wagner ranks. He complained that the regular army was co-opting his initiative.
Prigozhin also reportedly offered Putin to have Wagner train newly mobilized Russians and asked “to facilitate recruitment of foreign fighters, namely Afghans” to fight in Ukraine.
The document, citing FSB intercepts, says Putin told Prigozhin to address these issues with the Defense Ministry, effectively siding with his generals over the Wagner chief.
Wagner forces entered the battlefield last spring, after the military suffered major losses due to poor planning and strategic miscalculations.
Prigozhin came up with the prison recruitment project to bolster depleted Russian ranks and make Wagner a more prominent force. He personally toured penal colonies across Russia to lure convicts into military service with promises of high wages and, for those who survived six months in Ukraine, the most coveted prize: A presidential pardon for their crimes.
Few have lasted that long. Wagner commanders have adopted a tactic of sending waves of poorly trained convicts, who are often threatened with execution if they retreat, to attack Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut. The strategy has yielded small territorial gains but markedly high casualties, accounting for about half of Russian troops killed since December, according to a U.S. estimate.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.