The confidant who vented to Russian President Vladimir Putin recently about his military’s handling of the war in Ukraine was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder of a Russian mercenary group that is playing a critical role for Moscow on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Prigozhin’s criticisms echoed what he has been saying publicly for weeks, the officials said, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive intelligence. But the revelation that he felt comfortable sharing such a harsh rebuke of the Russian military effort with Putin in a private setting shows how his influence is rising as Moscow’s war falters. It also highlights the shaky standing of the Russian defense establishment’s formal leadership, which has come under fire from Prigozhin and others after months of battlefield errors and losses.
The Washington Post previously reported that a Russian insider confronted Putin personally to spotlight mismanagement of the war effort but did not name that individual. The Post reported that the exchange was considered significant enough to include in the daily intelligence briefing provided to President Biden.
Prigozhin’s frustration with the Russian Defense Ministry and his growing tension with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are also the subject of a separate U.S. intelligence report that has been circulating among officials in Washington, according to people who have read the file.
For years, Prigozhin operated in the shadows of Russian power, denying links to Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group and the St. Petersburg internet troll factory that U.S. authorities said he financed to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. He helped advance the Kremlin’s foreign aims outside formal structures, and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” owing to his ownership of a St. Petersburg restaurant Putin once frequented and a catering company boasting lucrative Russian state and city contracts.
But in recent weeks, Prigozhin has stepped into the open in a dramatic debut in Russian public life, admitting his leadership of Wagner for the first time and publicly assailing the Russian military leadership for its mistakes. [Continue reading…]