The Kremlin finally seems to be trying to take Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin down a notch after the businessman has spent months using his band of mercenaries and ex-convicts to steal the spotlight in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
A simmering feud between Prigozhin’s outfit and the regular Russian army spilled out into the open Wednesday, as Russia’s Defense Ministry publicly rebuffed claims made by “Putin’s chef” about a Wagner win in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
In an announcement late Tuesday, Prigozhin gleefully claimed his men had taken control of a salt mine town that Russian forces are hoping to use as a stepping stone to gain control of the highly coveted city of Bakhmut, a Ukrainian stronghold for months.
“Wagner units have taken control of all the territory of Soledar,” Prigozhin said through his press service. “I want to emphasize that no units other than the Wagner fighters took part in the assault on Soledar,” he said.
While Ukrainian authorities denied Prigozhin’s claim and said battles were still underway in the town—and that the selfie the Wagner boss posted supposedly from Soledar was not even in Soledar—Russia’s two dueling armies devolved into their own war within a war.
Russia’s Defense Ministry shot down Prigozhin’s boast that his own men had single-handedly brought Putin a win, instead confirming Ukraine’s announcement that fighting was still underway in the town.
Moreover, defense officials suggested Russian airborne units and assault teams are leading the charge. The Defense Ministry made no mention of Wagner whatsoever.
The rebuff comes as praise for Prigozhin’s outfit hit a fever pitch among pro-Kremlin figures, and the notorious mercenary group threatened to outshine Putin’s regular soldiers on the battlefield.
“Why is Wagner so successful, more successful than even the Russian army?” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote on Telegram early Wednesday.
He went on to praise Prigozhin personally, calling him “very creative,” a “workaholic,” and someone who “comes up with bright, novel solutions.”
“Prigozhin’s criminal past is a plus now, because world politics is criminalized,” he said, calling Prigozhin and Wagner “a national treasure.”
Speculation about Prigozhin possibly vying for an official post in Russia’s government has mounted in recent months as his PR campaign for Wagner has gone into overdrive, with many wondering if he’s made it his personal mission to “win the damn war” for Putin so he could demand something in return.
Despite Prigozhin butting heads with top defense officials and government officials, the Kremlin has largely allowed him to do as he pleases—but they seem to have fired their first warning shot this week in a sign of things to come.
Putin’s appointment on Tuesday of a controversial colonel-general as the new ground forces chief was done “as a snub to Prigozhin,” a source close to Russia’s General Staff told the outlet iStories.
Both Prigozhin and his fellow hardliner Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had publicly blamed Colonel-General Alexander Lapin for setbacks on the battlefield.
Lapin’s return, the source said, “is an answer [to Prigozhin] along the lines of ‘We don’t leave our own behind either.’”