The Russian billionaire who founded the notorious Wagner Group paramilitary confronted President Vladimir Putin about the mismanagement of the war in Ukraine, two US officials familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin met with Putin in private earlier in October to voice dissent as Russia chalked up mounting losses and failures in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, per The Post.
The outlet reported that the exchange was considered important enough to be included in a daily intelligence briefing provided to President Joe Biden.
The encounter had previously been reported, including by Insider, citing The Post’s reporting, but without Prigozhin’s name.
According to the intelligence report, Prigozhin said the Russian Defense Ministry was leaning too heavily Wagner mercenaries while giving them insufficient support, per The Post.
In a statement to The Post, Prigozhin denied that he spoke to Putin and said he has no right to criticize Russia’s army.
“First, I did not communicate personally with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin either recently or in any foreseeable future,” he told the Post through his press service. “I did not criticize the management of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation during the conflict in Ukraine. Therefore, I cannot comment on anything.”
Experts say the private meeting was an indication that Prigozhin is comfortable enough to discuss sensitive matters with Putin and that his influence is growing.
“People like Prigozhin now see a chance to grab for the brass ring,” Fiona Hill, a former senior White House official, told The Post. “This really shows the system is under stress when people start pushing themselves forward like this.”
The Wagner Group is a Russian mercenary organization that has been linked to massacres and atrocities in Ukrainian cities like Bucha and has also been accused of committing widespread war crimes in other countries, including Libya, and Syria.
After years of staying quiet about his links to the organization, Prigozhin acknowledged earlier this month that he in fact founded it, Foreign Policy reported.
Prighozin is not the only Putin loyalist to voice criticism of the Russian military amid the ongoing conflict.
After Ukraine recaptured swathes of territory in its northeastern Kharkiv region last month, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov suggested that the military had made “mistakes” and that Putin might not be aware of what is happening on the ground, The Guardian reported.