Wagner Group Boss Claims He Bombed Bakhmut, Challenges Zelensky to Sky Duel

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group, has challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a one-on-one aerial duel over Bakhmut.

A video published online Monday purportedly shows Prigozhin inside the cockpit of a bomber jet, claiming he had just personally completed a mission to bomb Bakhmut—a focal point of the war for months as Russian forces, including Wagner Group mercenaries, attempt to capture the eastern Ukraine city. Prigozhin then challenges Zelensky to "meet in the skies" for a duel on the following day, with the victor taking control of Bakhmut.

"Volodymyr Oleksandrovych (Zelensky), we have landed," Prigozhin says in the video, according to Reuters. "We have bombed Bakhmut. Tomorrow, I will fly a MiG-29. If you so desire, let's meet in the skies. If you win, you take Artyomovsk (Bakhmut). If not, we advance till (the River) Dnipro."

Newsweek has reached out to the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, D.C., for comment.

Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin Volodymyr Zelensky Duel
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, is shown in Lviv, Ukraine, on January 11, 2023, while Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, is pictured in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on June 17, 2016. Prigozhin on Monday challenged Zelensky to a fighter jet duel for control of Bakhmut. Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine; Mikhail Svetlov

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based think tank, cited the video in a report on Monday that claimed Prigozhin's "appeal in the Russian nationalist information space" may be "declining as he continues to overcompensate for the culmination of Wagner's attack around Bakhmut."

The ISW report said Russian nationalist military bloggers had recently concluded that "Prigozhin's flashy tactics may indicate that the non-Wagner-affiliated nationalist information space may be awakening to Prigozhin's efforts to use the war in Ukraine for personal benefit."

The bloggers said that Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, may be dropping in popularity despite having previously gained signifiant political influence through "his skill in trolling." However, Wagner-affiliated bloggers are reportedly continuing "to celebrate Prigozhin."

Earlier on Monday, members of Ukraine's parliament passed a resolution to officially declare that the Wagner Group is an international "criminal organization." The group, which was formed by Prigozhin in 2014, has also conducted mercenary operations to support Russian interests in countries that include Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali.

"The purpose of adopting the resolution is to consolidate the efforts of Ukraine and the international community for the just restoration of peace, ensuring the international legal order in the world and in Ukraine, and the inevitable punishment of all persons guilty of violating international humanitarian law," the Ukrainian resolution states.

While Prigozhin and Putin are considered close allies, there have been some signs that the mercenary leader's relationship with the Kremlin is becoming strained. The Russian military has recently taken on a larger role in the mission to capture Bakhmut, with Wagner Group personnel being gradually replaced.

This month, an ISW report asserted that Wagner was slowing efforts to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine, while the Russian Ministry of Defense was planning "to sideline the Wagner Group in future offensive operations."