MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s most powerful mercenary said on Sunday he was convinced that senior Kremlin officials had banned reporting about him on state media, cautioning that such a misleading approach would lead to a backlash from the Russian people within months.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, is the most striking member of President Vladimir Putin’s circle to gain widespread notoriety in the 15-month war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin, a restaurateur who quipped last week that his nickname should be “Putin’s butcher” rather than “Putin’s chef”, took the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this month but his role in the victory was played down on state television.
The 61-year-old has made a name for himself by imposing brutal discipline on his mercenaries and by using obscene language and prison slang to insult Putin’s top military brass including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
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In a sign of just how far Prigozhin is perceived to have breached the taboos of Putin’s Russia, state television ignored the fall of Bakhmut for 20 hours, and did not air Prigozhin’s victory speech.
Asked about what appeared to be a ban on coverage of him on state media, Prigozhin used a series of Russian proverbs to poke fun at those responsible: “What is forbidden is always sweeter.”
“Wagner is not a piece of slippery soap which the bureaucrats have got used to shoving all over the place; Wagner is an awl, a stiletto that you cannot hide,” Prigozhin said. “I am absolutely convinced they have forbidden (coverage).”
“That high-level bureaucrats, those very towers of the Kremlin, are trying to shut the mouths of everyone so that they don’t speak about Wagner will only give another shove to the people.”
Such an approach, he said, would provoke a backlash from the Russian people.
“In the long term – long term is two or three months – they will receive a finger-slap from the people for trying to shut everyone’s mouths and ears,” Prigozhin said.
The Kremlin and the defense ministry have ignored Prigozhin’s outbursts, which appear to break the rules of the tightly controlled political system crafted by Putin since he won the top job in the Kremlin on the last day of 1999.
The Kremlin, which did not respond to a request for comment, says all the aims of the “special military operation” in Ukraine will be achieved despite what it says is a proxy-war being waged by the West against it.
After Prigozhin claimed victory over Bakhmut, it took the Kremlin 10 hours to release a 36-word statement congratulating Wagner and armed forces units for “liberating” Artyomovsk, the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut used by Russia. It didn’t name Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said in his Sunday audio message that 72,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the “meat grinder” of Bakhmut and around 100,000 to 140,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been injured.
Reuters was unable to verify battlefield accounts of either side. Neither Ukraine nor Russia publish death tolls, but Kyiv has said Russia’s losses in Bakhmut were vast as it was the attacking side.
Kyiv has insisted that its forces still control a small part of the city.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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