Kyiv, Ukraine – Chairman A.S Russian mercenary group He emerged from the shadows to challenge Moscow’s rule Create, using success on the battlefield in Ukraine to polish his credentials as the new face of war.
Yevgeny Prigozhin The victory of the Wagner Group of military contractors was declared in The salt mining town of Solidar on Wednesday, in what would amount to the Kremlin’s first battlefield success for several months after a series of attacks Embarrassing setbacks.
Ukraine’s government said its soldiers were still holding out under fierce attack after months of battle on the eastern front lines, while Russia’s Defense Ministry appeared to contradict Prigozhin – the latest hint at the growing rift at the top of Moscow’s war effort.
NBC News has not been able to verify any of these claims.
Soledar’s capture may not be decisive in the course of the war, but it could provide a springboard for Prigozhin’s personal campaign, which has increasingly appeared at odds with the military leadership in the Kremlin.
While the mercenary leader was claiming victory, the Ministry of Defense announced another modification at the top of its “Special Military Operation”, Replacing its commander-in-chief in Ukraine after only 3 months in command.
The new role of General Valery Gerasimov and demotion General Sergey Surovkin It could reflect a desire to crush Prigozhin’s ambitions, some analysts said. He accused Prigozhin Gerasimov, the most senior Russian military officer, of incompetence.
“We don’t know the exact roots of this initiative…but the goal is to neutralize Prigozhin, especially among the Russian population,” Vadym Skipetsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told NBC News Thursday.
He said that “political games” are being played around the Russian president Russian President Vladimir PutinThe conspiracy was fueled by the stumbling block of his military campaign in Ukraine and the impact of sanctions and mobilization at home.
“Even if Prigozhin says that Wagner is doing the fighting, we still know that he is supported by Russian artillery and aviation … Now that Gerasimov has been appointed director of the so-called military special operation, there is no doubt that the support will continue, because he needs his gains and achievements, And he will do everything possible to neutralize Wagner.
On Wednesday, Prigozhin posted a picture of himself among the soldiers of what he said was a mine in Solidar, which, along with the nearby city of Bakhmut, has been devastated by some of the fiercest fighting since the Russian invasion last year.
A statement attributed to Prigozhin posted on the Wagner website read: “Wagner’s special military units took control of the entire territory of Solidar… I want to stress once again that no units participated in the attack on Solidar except for Wagner’s special military fighters.” Telegram messaging channel linked.
NBC News was unable to confirm where the photo was taken.
By contrast, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Neither of them confirmed the fall of Solidar in the hands of the Russian forces or mentioned the involvement of the Wagner Group in the attempts to seize it.
“Let’s not rush and wait for the official data,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that “its airborne forces surrounded Solidar from the northern and southern parts of the city,” but added that “assault teams are fighting in the city.”
Prigozhin’s post – and his assertion of his forces’ success – comes amid a flurry of online statements, photos and videos in recent weeks that analysts say amounted to a brazen campaign of self-promotion and outright hostility toward the military leaders behind the war. Stumbling badly since the invasion in February.
Prigozhin, 61, formerly known as Putin’s “chef” for catering to government events, has long publicly denied command of the Wagner Group, a private military firm that also operates in countries including Syrian Arab RepublicMali and the Central African Republic. Russia has consistently denied the Wagner Group’s involvement in its official military operations.
But he came to public attention during the conflict in Ukraine, where his fighters are leading the offensive against Kyiv forces in the east. Donetsk region at enormous human cost.
PMCs are technically illegal in Russia, but in November Wagner opened offices in St Petersburg emblazoned with the group’s logo.
Prigozhin wore a military uniform and appeared in videos apparently showing him recruiting prisoners or in the heat of battle on the front line, in contrast to the city-dwelling elites he mocks in some of his posts.
He has publicly criticized senior Russian military officers, and a social media channel linked to Wagner published a rant by two men claiming to be Russian soldiers criticizing army commanders amid reports of low morale and organizational chaos, and Prigozhin later vowed to “make them (the army) solve” problems on their own. Frontline in an audio post.
Such tactics are highly unusual in a top-down political system where opponents are routinely imprisoned and even poisoned or found after mysteriously falling from hotel windows and balconies.
With the Kremlin’s military campaign in Ukraine largely halted and Putin poised for re-election in 2024, some experts say the time may be right for a power play.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes about a looming conflict between pragmatists who want to de-escalate the conflict, and hawks who want to double down and radically restructure Russia’s political system.
“Their struggle for supremacy is set to be one of the major political battles of 2023, contingent largely on events on the battlefield: the worse Russia performs militarily, the fiercer the pragmatists’ battle with the hawks,” she wrote in a paper. Posted a note on Monday.
“The hawks will take the offensive and target military and political leaders,” she added.
So far, the hawks have fared far above the pragmatists, and a group of right-wing bloggers have decried Russia’s military performance, while television pundits have called for a tougher approach.
Prigozhin promoted a cruel image online — she appeared with a sledgehammer in one video, and according to Reuters, he commented approvingly on another clip that showed a fleeing defendant being executed with a sledgehammer.
In a January 1 video, Prigozhin is shown inspecting a pile of corpses described in the clip as black-sacked Wagner fighters in a makeshift morgue, saying, “Their contract is over, they can go home.”
Ukrainian officials accuse Prigozhin of using his mercenaries as cannon fodder, prompting them to fight to weaken Kyiv’s defenses and secure a high-profile victory regardless of the human cost.
After months of fighting, this strategy may have just secured its first battlefield breakthrough — and the Kremlin’s response.