The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group accused the country’s defense minister and its highest-ranking general of treason on Tuesday, intensifying the most high-profile dispute in the Russian forces since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken aim at military leaders in a series of increasingly hostile audio messages on social media this week, and on Tuesday accused the “chief of the general staff and minister of defense” of withholding ammunition and supplies from his fighters to try to destroy Wagner, “which can be equated to treason.”
“A bunch of military-related officials have decided that it is their country, that it is their people,” Mr. Prigozhin said in one profanity-laden audio message published by his press service on Tuesday. “They have decided that these people will die when it is convenient to them, when they feel like it.”
The Defense Ministry has not publicly responded to the accusations. Mr. Prigozhin, a longtime ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, operated for years in secrecy, but he has assumed an increasingly public role in the conflict since last summer. His growing criticism of the war effort in recent months has been causing concern among some Kremlin insiders.
Wagner and supporting army units have been the only Russian forces to make measurable gains since Moscow began a new wave of offensive operations this month. They have gradually tightened their grip on the city of Bakhmut — which Moscow considers a key step in taking the entire eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas — by overrunning surrounding villages in a series of costly frontal assaults.
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Western intelligence officials estimate that Wagner has about 40,000 fighters, including 10,000 experienced mercenaries and 30,000 fighters enlisted from Russian prisons.
As the battle for Bakhmut has entered a new, potentially critical phase, Mr. Prigozhin took his long-running oblique criticism of the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, to a new level, claiming that they were deliberately starving Wagner of supplies and blocking reinforcements from Russian jails to deny him a victory. Mr. Prigozhin used their titles but did not directly name the two men.
Mr. Prigozhin said on Monday that he did not have problems with ammunition under Gen. Sergei Surovikin, referring to him by name. General Surovikin was replaced by General Gerasimov as the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine last month.
“I don’t have an option, I’m going until the end,” Mr. Prigozhin said in another audio message on Tuesday, explaining his decision to go public with his accusations against the military commanders. “My people are dying in heaps.”
As Mr. Prigozhin escalated his attacks on the military command, he also appeared to be increasing his efforts to shore up alliances, posting photos and videos with other prominent paramilitary leaders, including the commander of pro-Kremlin Chechen fighters in Ukraine and a former commander of a pro-Russian militia in Donbas.
Some analysts have noted a change of tone from Mr. Prigozhin’s usually sarcastic, self-confident remarks, interpreting it as a sign of waning access to Mr. Putin.
“This is an act of desperation,” the political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Monday, referring to Mr. Prigozhin’s audio messages this week. “It’s an attempt to reach Putin through publicity, to scare the military command with political consequences.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s audio messages were released shortly before Mr. Putin made his state of the nation address in Moscow, in which he called for unity in the war that he falsely blamed on Western aggression.
Mr. Prigozhin did not appear to be among the dozens of military leaders and decorated soldiers present at the address, and Mr. Putin did not mention Wagner during his lengthy praise of the Russian military in Ukraine. Mr. Putin said he had chosen to omit the names of various “volunteer” units from his speech.
“I was afraid of upsetting those whom I would not mention,” he said.
Ms. Stanovaya said the public tensions between Wagner and the defense ministry were unlikely to be well received by the Russian president, who has made obedience and coordination between subordinates a cornerstone of his rule.
“I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that all of these clashes, this infighting, are infuriating” Mr. Putin, she wrote.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.