January 15, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

 Russian billionaire and businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace on June 16, 2016, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin is fighting his own war in eastern Ukraine, an often crude and increasingly vocal presence in Moscow’s faltering military campaign.

He is pitching himself and his Wagner mercenary group as the real patriots, in contrast to what he derides as the corrupt and incompetent military hierarchy. The language is getting harsher, and the stakes higher.

In the last few weeks, Prigozhin has been seen close to the frontlines in the occupied eastern region of Donetsk, delivering oranges to the troops or grimly reviewing body bags, and engaging with his fighters in unvarnished and sometimes crude language.

On Saturday, he posted a video claiming he had just visited his troops in the brutally contested town of Soledar, praising his forces for what he claimed was best-in-the-world fighting prowess.

He rarely misses an opportunity to take a swipe at the establishment. Somewhere in Donetsk earlier this month, Prigozhin told his fighters: “Once we conquer our internal bureaucracy and corruption, then we will conquer the Ukrainians and NATO.”

For Prigozhin, the chief bureaucrat that he has in mind is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The two appear to have fallen out over lucrative military contracts given to and then taken from Prigozhin’s Concord Group, as well as Wagner’s controversial role in Syria.

A clash over credit in Soledar: Prigozhin said Friday that it was “exclusively” his troops who have made purported gains around Soledar in recent days.

In a filmed exchange with his fighters, Prigozhin asked provocatively: “Other than Wagner PMC, who else is here?”

“No one else!” they replied.

Ukrainian forces continue to deny that Soledar has fallen and even Prigozhin has acknowledged that fighting continues there.

Regardless, the mercenary leader’s ambitions have not gone unnoticed in Washington, DC.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Laura Cooper said in a briefing Friday: “In the recent past, we’ve seen that Wagner is advancing at a more rapid clip than any other unit in the Russian military.”

Read more analysis on Prigozhin’s role in the war here.

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