Some 20,000 troops from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group were killed in the months-long battle for control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, its founder has said.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said he had recruited about 50,000 prisoners to fight with Wagner in Russia’s war in Ukraine and that about 20 percent of them had been killed.
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A similar number of his contract soldiers had also perished in the battle for the city, he told Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov in a video interview posted on his Telegram channel on Wednesday.
This weekend, Wagner and the Russian military claimed to have taken control of Bakhmut, which has been left in ruins by the prolonged fighting, with Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulating the armed forces. But Kyiv has said its forces continue to fight for the city.
Prigozhin, a businessman whose influence has deepened since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, has scathingly criticised the country’s military leadership, accusing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of incompetence.
If ordinary Russians continued getting their children back in coffins while the children of the elite “shook their arses” in the sun, he warned in his latest video, Russia would face turmoil along the lines of 1917 that brought the Bolsheviks to power.
“This divide can end as in 1917 with a revolution,” he said.
“First, the soldiers will stand up and after that, their loved ones will rise up,” he said. “There are already tens of thousands of them – relatives of those killed. And there will probably be hundreds of thousands – we cannot avoid that.”
Last year, Prigozhin toured Russian prisons in a bid to convince inmates to fight with Wagner in Ukraine in exchange for an amnesty if they survived to return home.
Russia’s most powerful mercenary leader said Ukraine was preparing a counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian troops back to its borders before 2014, when Moscow invaded and then annexed Crimea.
Ukraine would try to encircle Bakhmut, the focus of intense fighting in the east, and attack Crimea, he added.
“Most likely of all, this scenario will not be good for Russia so we need to prepare for an arduous war,” Prigozhin said in the interview.
“We are in such a condition that we could f***ing lose Russia – that is the main problem … We need to impose martial law.”
The attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region, which Moscow has blamed on Ukraine, was a further example of the failures of the military leadership, he said, warning that Ukraine would seek to strike deeper into Russia.
Russia needed to mobilise more men and gear its economy exclusively to war, the Wagner chief said.
Prigozhin is known for his expletive-laden outbursts directed at Shoigu and Gerasimov.
Earlier this month, he accused the Russian defence chief of failing to provide his soldiers with enough ammunition and threatened to pull out of Bakhmut.
He filmed the video in front of rows of corpses he said were dead Wagner fighters as he unleashed a wave of invective at Shoigu and Gerasimov.