Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a ‘significant tool’ for Moscow, has dared to privately confront the Russian president in recent weeks
By Natalia Vasilyeva, RUSSIA CORRESPONDENT
1 November 2022 • 8:06pm
Volodymyr Zelensky is a “strong and confident leader”, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group has said in his latest challenge to Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin issued the statement through his press office on Tuesday, marking one of the first times a senior Kremlin figure has spoken positively about Ukraine’s president.
Mr Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef”, has gained influence over the course of the war as his Wagner fighters take the lead in many parts of the Ukrainian front line.
His remarks contradict the official Kremlin stance, which is to mock Mr Zelensky as a drug-addicted neo-Nazi.
“Although he is the president of a country that’s hostile to Russia right now, Zelensky is a strong, confident, pragmatic and nice guy,” Mr Prigozhin said in a statement on the Vkontatke social media platform issued through his catering firm, Concord.
“Don’t underestimate him,” he said in a second post explaining why he was offering such a discordant view of the Ukrainian president.
Mr Prigozhin, who holds no formal role in Russia’s government, dared to privately confront Putin over the course of the war in recent weeks, according to US intelligence revealed by the Washington Post.
Together with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, he has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of the military leaders prosecuting Putin’s war.
Over the summer, the 61-year-old, once known for organising dinners for the Russian president, revealed he was indeed the founder of Wagner, despite previous denials he had anything to do with the secretive military contractor acting on Moscow’s behalf across the Middle East and Africa.
British lawyers McCue Jury and Partners on Tuesday announced they were bringing legal action against Wagner for “terrorism” in Ukraine, aiming to claim compensation for victims of the mercenary group.
In September, Mr Prigozhin was filmed recruiting from Russian prisons, promising convicted criminals they would be free if they survived for six months in Ukraine – and shot if they tried to desert.
“Troops will be issued two hand grenades to blow themselves up if necessary,” he told an audience of black-clad men in the extraordinary footage.
In another public message, he defended recruiting rapists and murders on the basis that it meant “your sons” would not be sent to the front. Weeks later Putin announced a mobilisation that has sent around 300,000 extra men to war.
The Kremlin has derided Mr Zelensky, a former TV comedy star, as a “clown” since he was elected in 2019 and peddled rumours that he was using drugs, with top officials dismissing him as a “junkie”.
A day after he launched the devastating invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin called on Ukrainian troops to oust Mr Zelensky, saying he would rather deal with Ukrainian generals than with a “gang of junkies and neo-Nazis in power”.
The Institute for the Study of War in its latest report on Tuesday said that Mr Prigozhin was “establishing himself as a political force, using his popular status and his affiliation with Wagner to criticise his opponents within elite circles”.
In testimony to British parliament on Tuesday, Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovskyconfirmed reports of Mr Prigozhin’s special place in Putin’s court, describing him as a “significant tool for the Kremlin”.
“The number of meetings with the dictator is the only currency that’s in demand in that regime, and Mr Prigozhin has got a lot of those meetings,” said Mr Khodorkovsky, who was released after a decade in Russian prison in 2013, and was formerly the country’s richest man.