The head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group is locked in a high-profile dispute with former Russian commander Igor Girkin.
Relations have long been frosty between Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and ex-FSB operative Girkin, who have both proved to be high-profile voices within Russia since the start of the invasion.
But the public disagreements hit a new level this week after Girkin hit back at comments made by an anonymous Wagner member against him.
Girkin said that the Wagner mercenary “blatantly lies that I somehow ‘blame’ the fighters and commanders of the specified military structure fighting against the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” He went on to specify that he had criticised Prigozhin’s “political ambitions” rather than those fighting on behalf of Wagner.
He accused Prigozhin of deliberately misunderstanding his comments, using the Telegram messaging app to also accuse the Wagner chief of sending personnel to Syria and Africa rather than deploying his mercenaries to win the war in Ukraine.
In response Prigozhin invited Girkin to join Wagner forces in the eastern Luhansk region “to check the correctness of his position and use, as he stated, his combat experience.”
Prigozhin said he had not met Girkin personally, and he had been contacted via an associate. This associate had offered Girkin money in exchange for an end to Girkin’s criticism of Wagner, he said in a statement. The Wagner boss also insisted that sending mercenaries to fight in Africa as well as Ukraine was “absolutely necessary.”
In a later statement, Prigozhin said he had “little faith that Girkin can be effective and I think that all his demagogy is purely PR and an attempt to cut a pretty penny in an easy way.”
“Let him come,” the statement added. “If he runs away, we will consider him a deserter. If he dies, we will bury him, as it should be.”
Prigozhin has previously threatened to urinate on Girkin’s face if he fled the battlefield, according to Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda.
On Saturday, Girkin, who was involved in the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, said he had refused an offer extended by the Wagner chief to fight alongside mercenary forces in eastern Ukraine.
“I will not be able to serve under the leadership of a person who directly accused me of treason against Russia. Not to mention the dirty insults that accompanied these accusations,” Girkin wrote.
The initial invitation extended by Prigozhin on January 26 was “sarcastic,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank said, adding that the Wagner chief “further demeaned Girkin by stating that Wagner does not send out invitations.”
But the “altercation” between Prigozhin and Girkin “is exposing a new domain for competition among Russian nationalist groups for political influence in Russia,” the ISW said.
Although both have been critical of the Kremlin’s handling of the war effort in Ukraine, the ISW added, Girkin and Prigozhin are “likely competing for influence and patronage among pro-war politicians disillusioned with the progress of the war.”
Marina Miron, post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London’s War Studies department, said: “The interesting part is that both Girkin and Prigozhin are from the same camp when it comes to criticizing the ‘special military operation.'”
Although the Wagner chief lacks military expertise, she told Newsweek, he does enjoy a closer relationship with the Kremlin elite. Prigozhin “does not like that kind of competition on the battlefield,” Miron said, arguing that if Girkin did join the Wagner ranks, he would be “under Prigozhin’s control rather than competing with him.”
“If Girkin is not to join Wagner, all he does will be discredited even if Girkin’s efforts help achieve the military and political objectives,” Miron said.
Girkin was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for 298 counts of murder by a court in the Hague in November 2022, over the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.
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