The head of Russia's mercenary group Wagner has released a strange video message, purportedly filmed inside a fighter jet on a bombing mission over Ukraine, in which he challenged President Volodymyr Zelensky to a duel.
That’s the gist of it – mad as it sounds.
Filmed at night, Yevgeny Prigozhin appears in what he claims is a fighter jet about to land after a mission over the skies of eastern Ukraine.
"We are landing, we bombed Bakhmut," he says, referring to the city that has been the bloody epicenter of fighting between Ukraine and Russia for months.
He then challenges President Zelensky to a fighter jet duel, saying he will board a Mig-29 fighter jet the next day.
"If you have the will, we will meet in the skies. If you win, you will take Artemovsk (the Russian name for Bakhmut), if not, we will go until the Dnipro (River)," Prigozhin says.
What’s this actually about?
It’s all about PR. According to analysts, there is a bit of a power struggle between the Kremlin and Prigozhin that has been playing out for a few months now.
Prigozhin has been attempting to boost his profile and influence by portraying his Wagner group as the only Russian force capable of achieving victories on the battlefield, against a backdrop of repeated defeats suffered by Russia’s conventional armed forces.
The Wagner Group has played a leading role in the fights for the Bakhmut and Soledar in eastern Ukraine, though it has come at a massive cost with thousands of fighters – many of them recruited by prisons – killed and wounded.
The Institute for the Study of War last month said this was all part of an effort by Prigozhin “to undermine faith in the Russian MoD and in Putin-aligned actors”.
This has led to a bit of a public relations crisis in the Kremlin as Russia’s regular army has failed to rack up any major successes since the early days of the war and its initial objective – to take all of Ukraine – remains a pipe dream.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has found himself in a tricky situation – unable to turn down any battlefield opportunities Wagner presents to him but unwilling to give Prigozhin all the credit for fear of making him too popular and powerful.
What has the Kremlin said about the spat?
The Kremlin last month denied tensions between the Russian army and the Wagner mercenary force, following competing claims of battlefield wins in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested that the conflict had been invented by journalists and military bloggers.
"It is mainly the product of information manipulation," Peskov told reporters.
But he also added that while a lot of such talk comes from Russia’s “enemies,” the Kremlin has ”friends” who behave in a similar manner.
Is the timing of the video significant?
Almost certainly. Russia’s conventional forces are widely expected to be launching an offensive in the coming weeks using hundreds of thousands of mobilized men.
If they achieve any successes, this could overshadow the role of Wagner and Prigozhin will find it difficult to claim as much credit as he’s been getting in recent weeks.
What does Ukraine have to say?
President Zelensky is yet to reply to Prigozhin’s offer of a duel and is very unlikely to do so at all.
And on the same day the fighter jet video was released, Ukraine's parliament adopted a resolution denouncing Wagner as a terrorist organization.
"We are preparing to destroy Wagner as a component of international terrorism," the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, said.
He said the recognition was a "step towards bringing them [Wagner] to justice."
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