Wagner Group Eyes Kremlin Official as 'Next Target' for Scapegoat: ISW

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on Thursday that he received a question from a Russian news outlet regarding discussions among Kremlin leaders to "neutralize" his mercenary group.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), however, reports that it has not found "any information to suggest that these discussions have happened."

Prigozhin's private army has played a crucial role in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, particularly taking charge in Russian President Vladimir Putin's advancement toward the city of Bakhmut. Since January, however, Prigozhin has had a growing feud with Russian leaders since the two forces debated over receiving credit for the capture of Soledar, a city in eastern Ukraine.

Prigozhin May Be Eyeing Patrushev As Scapegoat
In the inset, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev is seen during the military parade at Red Square, on May 9, 2021, in Moscow. The Institute for the Study of War assessed that Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who's pictured in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on June 16, 2016, could be eyeing Patrushev as the next scapegoat for Russia's failures in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In its latest assessment, the ISW reported on a "request for comment" published by Prigozhin's press service to Telegram on Thursday that was purportedly sent to the Wagner leader by the Russian news outlet, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In the comment request, the outlet writes that its politics editor, Ivan Rodin, is "worried about" Prigozhin based on "declassified data" regarding discussions between Putin and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.

"The press comment claims that information on these discussions has recently circulated on Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels and alleges that Patrushev suggested to Putin that there will be 'nothing left' of Wagner in 'one and a half to two months,'" the ISW wrote in its assessment.

Despite the claims, there has been no proof observed by the ISW that the discussion among Kremlin leaders occurred, including nothing from Nezavisimaya Gazeta that suggests the request was ever sent. Newsweek has emailed Nezavisimaya Gazeta for comment.

"The lack of external confirmation on this subject suggests that Prigozhin has fabricated the alleged plot to further several information operations on behalf of Wagner and his own reputation," the think tank assessed.

ISW added that Prigozhin is apparently laying the foundation to pin blame on Patrushev for Wagner Group's failures and potential crackdowns the group might face, as well as for fabricating a scenario in which Wagner poses a domestic threat to Russia.

"This effort appears to be the next evolution of Prigozhin's campaign against the Russian military establishment, and Patrushev could become Prigozhin's next target after his concerted informational campaigns against the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff," ISW reported.

Prigozhin has been frequently critical of Russian leadership, and recently claimed that he was cut off from Russian government communication channels, a sign of possible retaliation by the Kremlin over the public criticism.

However, Jason Jay Smart, special correspondent for the Kyiv Post, previously told Newsweek that the Wagner leader is likely getting away with his repeated attacks on the Kremlin due to some sort of agreement between him and Russian leadership.

"He's not going to be attacking the government like he's attacking it unless he's got some official approval," Smart said. "You can't just go out and be saying what he's saying."

Smart added that it is possible Putin is attempting to blame Russia's failures in Ukraine on his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who has faced some of the harshest criticism from Prigozhin.