MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s most powerful mercenary said on Sunday he was convinced senior Kremlin officials had banned coverage of him in state media, warning that such a misleading approach would provoke a backlash from the Russian people within months .
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, is the most prominent member of President Vladimir Putin’s circle, who rose to prominence during the 15-month war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin, a restaurateur who joked last week that his nickname should be “Putin’s butcher” rather than “Putin’s cook,” captured the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this month, but his role in the victory was downplayed on state television.
The 61-year-old has made a name for himself by inflicting brutal discipline on his mercenaries and using obscene language and prison jargon to insult Putin’s top military leaders, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
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In a sign of how far Prigozhin has allegedly broken the taboos of Putin’s Russia, state television ignored Bakhmut’s fall for 20 hours and did not broadcast Prigozhin’s victory speech.
When asked about an apparent ban on covering him in state media, Prigozhin used a series of Russian proverbs to poke fun at those responsible: “What’s forbidden is always cuter.”
“Wagner is not a stick of slippery soap that bureaucrats are used to pushing around; Wagner is an awl, a stiletto that cannot be hidden,” said Prigozhin. “I absolutely believe they banned[the reporting].”
“Having high-level bureaucrats, these very towers of the Kremlin, trying to keep everyone silent so they don’t talk about Wagner will only give the people another nudge.”
Such an approach, he said, would provoke a backlash from the Russian people.
“In the long run – long term is two or three months – they will get a slap in the face from the people for trying to shut everyone’s mouth and ears,” Prigozhin said.
The Kremlin and Defense Ministry have ignored Prigozhin’s outbursts, which appear to be in violation of the rules of the tightly controlled political system that Putin has created since he took over the top post in the Kremlin on the last day of 1999.
The Kremlin, which did not respond to a request for comment, said all goals of the “special military operation” in Ukraine were being achieved, although it believed the West was waging a proxy war against Ukraine.
After Prigozhin achieved victory over Bakhmut, it took the Kremlin 10 hours to release a 36-word statement urging Wagner and the armed forces to “liberate” Artemovsk, the Soviet-era name used by Russia for Bakhmut, congratulated. The name of Prigozhin was not mentioned.
Prigozhin said in his audio message on Sunday that 72,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and about 100,000 to 140,000 Ukrainian soldiers were injured in the Bakhmut “meat grinder.”
Reuters was unable to verify either side’s battlefield reports. Neither Ukraine nor Russia release the death toll, but Kyiv said Russia’s losses at Bakhmut were enormous as it was the attacking side.
Kiev has insisted its armed forces still control a small part of the city.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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