By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW, May 28 (Reuters) – Russia’s most powerful mercenary said on Sunday he was convinced senior Kremlin officials had banned talking about him in state media, warning that such a misleading approach would lead to a violent reaction from the Russian people within a few months.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, is the most striking member of President Vladimir Putin’s circle to achieve wide notoriety in Ukraine’s 15-month war.
Prigozhin, a restaurateur who last week joked his nickname should be “Putin’s Butcher” rather than “Putin’s Chef”, took on the Ukrainian town 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 imposing brutal discipline on his mercenaries and using obscene language and prison slang to insult Putin’s top military brass, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu .
In a sign of the extent to which Prigozhin is seen to have broken taboos in Putin’s Russia, state television ignored Bakhmut’s downfall for 20 hours and did not air Prigozhin’s victory speech.
Asked about what appeared to be a ban on covering him in state media, Prigozhin used a series of Russian proverbs to mock officials: “What’s forbidden is always sweeter.”
“Wagner is not a slippery piece of soap that bureaucrats have gotten used to pushing everywhere; Wagner is a punch, a stiletto that you cannot hide,” Prigozhin said. “I absolutely believe they banned (the cover).”
“Having high-level bureaucrats, those same Kremlin towers, trying to shut everyone’s mouths from talking about Wagner will only give the people another push.”
Such an approach, he said, would provoke a backlash from the Russian people.
“In the long term – in the long term, it’s two or three months – they will get a slap in the face from people for trying to shut everyone’s mouths and ears,” Prigozhin said.
The Kremlin and the Defense Ministry have ignored Prigozhin’s outbursts, which appear to break the rules of the tightly controlled political system that Putin has crafted since winning the top Kremlin job on the last day of 1999.
Kremlin, which did not respond to a request for comment, says all goals of ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine will be achieved despite what it says is a Western-led proxy war against it .
After Prigozhin claimed victory over Bakhmut, it took the Kremlin 10 hours to issue a 36-word statement congratulating Wagner and the armed forces units for “liberating” Artyomovsk, the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut used by Russia. He did not name Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said in his Sunday audio message that 72,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Bakhmut’s “meat grinder” and around 100,000 to 140,000 Ukrainian soldiers were injured.
Reuters was unable to verify battlefield accounts from either side. Neither Ukraine nor Russia release the death toll, but kyiv said Russia’s losses in Bakhmut were huge as it was the attacking side.
kyiv insisted that its forces still controlled a small part of the city. (Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)