Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s notorious Wagner Group private military company, is increasingly lashing out at the Kremlin amid a vicious struggle between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies that could determine who will be the next czar of the Russias. 

Prigozhin has made a series of public statements lambasting Russian troops for retreating, claiming the Russians shot down their own aircraft, threatening to withdraw his mercenaries from the besieged city of Bakhmut – which he had promised to capture by Russia’s May 9 Victory Day holiday – and even mocking Putin himself.

Now the Washington Post is reporting that Prigozhin in January made an offer to Ukraine that if they withdrew their troops from Bakhmut, he would provide the Ukrainians with the positions of Russian troops so the Ukrainians could attack them. 

Prigozhin’s offer was revealed in classified documents that were allegedly leaked online by Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira last month.

The Washington Post confirmed that Prigozhin has spoken with Ukraine’s intelligence agency several times, and one unnamed Ukrainian official also confirmed that Prigozhin offered to reveal the locations of Russian troops. However, the Ukrainians reportedly rejected his proposal because they believed Prigozhin was being disingenuous.

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It is hard to tell if Prigozhin was serious about offering the Ukrainians the locations of Russian troops because he often makes provocative statements to get what he wants, said Ivan Fomin, a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“If he genuinely tried to appear sincere, it’s reasonable that the Ukrainians questioned his motives and deemed his proposal disingenuous,” Fomin told Task & Purpose. “It’s more plausible that he was attempting to outsmart them, should they accept his proposition, for example, by providing false information or using the deal to discredit the Ukrainian leadership.”

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 16:  (RUSSIA OUT) Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace June 16, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Saint Petersburg to attend the International Economic Forum. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace June 16, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Fomin said he does not believe it is likely that Prigozhin was genuinely trying to strike a covert agreement to take control of Bakhmut behind Putin’s back, noting the Russian president is “highly sensitive to betrayal” and might decide to get rid of Prigozhin.

But given Prigozhin’s history of publicly attacking top Russian leaders – including Putin – the question arises of why hasn’t already mysteriously fallen from a second-story balcony or been served tea with cream and Novichok?

By publicly defying Kremlin leaders, Prigozhin is actually playing the role that Putin wants him to, Fomin said.

“Prigozhin is supposed to occupy this special position in Putin’s system, voicing opinions and taking actions that others cannot,” Fomin said. “This is exactly what makes him useful to Putin. Pigozhin can do the dirty work that won’t be tied directly to the Kremlin, providing convenient deniability.”

The Wagner Group, which has sent thousands of mercenary fighters to Ukraine, also provides Putin with a hedge to prevent the Russian military from accumulating too much power, Fomin said.

Another possible explanation for Prigozhin’s seemingly suicidal acts of defiance against the Kremlin is that a power struggle has emerged within Putin’s inner circle and Prigozhin is positioning himself to be Russia’s next leader, said Ivana Stradner, a Russia expert with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Inside Russia, things are collapsing, and within different inner circles there is literally chaos because at the end of the day, for them, it is all about who is going to control Russian resources after Putin; and therefore, who are going to be new billionaires and Russian oligarchs,” Stradner told Task & Purpose.

For a long time, Prigozhin has been fighting for power with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, but the Kremlin palace intrigue has become so volatile that Prigozhin now faces a new opponent, Russian ultranationalist Igor Girkin, who recently accused him of being used as a pawn by one faction within Putin’s inner circle, Stradner said.

This shows how right-wing Russian groups are slowly turning against Putin because he is losing the war in Ukraine, Stradner told Task & Purpose.

“This is literally the inner war between inner circles inside Russia,” Stradner said. “It’s a bad sign that even after Putin there will be another Putin – probably someone even more radical.”  

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