How Wagner Boss Interview Points to Major Rift With Kremlin

The Kremlin is reportedly seeking to undermine and sideline Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner Group of mercenaries fighting for Moscow in Ukraine.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that Prigozhin had intended to salvage his group's diminishing reputation in the war with an interview with the Kremlin-affiliated military blogger Semyon Pegov, who is also known under the alias Wargonzo.

Prigozhin has been critical of Russia's war effort and has sought to take credit for gaining the town of Soledar while his troops engaged in a fierce fight for the nearby city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk Oblast.

But the ISW said Friday's interview was set up by the Kremlin "to ambush" Prigozhin, who was questioned about his methods, including how he recruited convicts, the reported executions of deserters and the use of his troops as cannon fodder.

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is pictured at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2017. The Kremlin is seeking to side line the role of the financier of the Wagner Group private military company in the war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin was also quizzed about his repeated criticism of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), his political aspirations and reports that mercenaries wear Nazi symbols despite the Kremlin's stated goal for the invasion to "denazify" Ukraine.

"Prigozhin likely saw this interview as an opportunity to elevate his name but instead found himself on the defensive throughout," ISW Russia analyst Kateryna Stepanenko said in a Twitter thread on Sunday.

In what the ISW said was a bid to deflect attention from the controversies surrounding him, Prigozhin told the interviewer it would take up to two years for Russia to reach the Donetsk Oblast administrative borders and three years to advance to the Dnipro River.

He likely said this to contribute to the Russian information space about concerns regarding Moscow's ability to sustain a major offensive in Donetsk Oblast, in a bid "to re-establish his reputation relative to that of the Russian MoD," the ISW said.

Also, a document obtained by Wagner-affiliated milblogger called for Wagner and Prigozhin not to be mentioned in the media reporting about the war.

Although unverified, the document signaled part of a wider campaign to sideline the private military company and Prigozhin. "The Kremlin is continuing to dim Prigozhin's star by depriving him of the right to recruit in prisons and by targeting his influence in the information space," Stepanenko added.

Prigozhin is believed to have recruited as many as 50,000 prisoners from jails with the promise of pardons if they survive six months' service. But convicts reportedly got wise to the scheme after finding out about the high fatality rate among recruits.

Thomas O'Donnell, global fellow of the Wilson Center think tank, said those who were getting too critical of the Kremlin, like Prigozhin, were being "pushed aside."

"Prigozhin has to distinguish himself to rationalize his existence as an independent contractor, he has got to show that he is better than the regular army," he told Newsweek from Berlin.

"But he's got to be careful because Putin has put the kibosh on the ultra-nationalists leading the propaganda," O'Donnell said, referring to some of the war's critics, adding that Putin is now intending to go "into a long slog type of war."