Wagner owner blasts 'treason' of Russian military chiefs

FILE - Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on July 4, 2017. Prigozhin, the owner of the Russian private military company, Wagner, accused Russia's defense minister and chief of general staff on Tuesday Feb. 21, 2023 of starving his fighters in Ukraine of ammunition, which he charged amounts to an attempt to destroy" the force. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via AP, File) (Sergei Ilnitsky)

The owner of the Russian private military company Wagner accused Russia's defense minister and chief of general staff on Tuesday of starving his fighters in Ukraine of ammunition, which he said amounts to an attempt to “destroy" the force.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in an emotional audio statement released through his spokespeople that “direct resistance” from the Russian military “is nothing other than an attempt to destroy Wagner."

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Emotional statements from Prigozhin and his fighters highlighted long-brewing tensions between the Russian military and Wagner, which has unclear legal status because Russian law prohibits private military companies.

Prigozhin said in a raised voice that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov are handing out orders “left and right” not to supply Wagner with ammunition and or air transport. The company has been involved in heavy fighting in the east of Ukraine.

This “can be likened to high treason in the very moment when Wagner is fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of its fighters every day,” Prigozhin said.

His claims could not be independently verified.

In a statement, Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied “excited declarations” that ammunition had been held up for volunteers in “assault detachments” fighting around Bakhmut, and said priority had been given to making sure those groups were well equipped. The ministry did not identify whose declarations it was responding to.

It concluded: “Attempts to create a split in the tightknit machinery of cooperation and support between subdivisions of the Russian forces are counterproductive and only benefit the enemy.”

The millionaire Prigozhin and his fighters have been alleging for weeks that the military doesn't provide them with enough ammunition. Wagner's push to take over Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine's partially occupied eastern Donetsk region, has stalled and turned into a grinding battle.

Prigozhin also has repeatedly accused Russia's top military brass in recent months of incompetence. He has raised his public profile, issuing daily statements that boast about Wagner’s purported victories and mock his opponents.

His criticism, however, appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Last month, Putin reaffirmed his trust in Gerasimov by putting him in direct charge of Russian forces in Ukraine, a move that some observers also interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size.

On Tuesday, in his long-anticipated state-of-the-nation address, Putin profusely thanked his military, but he made no mention of Wagner.

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