Mercenary chief of the Wagner Group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has threatened to keep his men from returning to Ukraine if Moscow continues under the leadership of “clowns,” widening the rift that has been growing between his group and military command.
“If the whole chain (of command) is 100% failed and will only be led by clowns who turn people into meat, then we will not participate in it,” Prigozhin said during an interview to celebrate his 62nd birthday.
“It has been a tough year,” he added, confirming that his men will leave the city of Bakhmut on June 5 after handing it to the Russian army. “Then we’ll see how it goes.”
Prigozhin, known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chef or more recently calling himself a “butcher,” clarified that he wanted a “section of the front where we can fight independently without anyone’s help.”
“We always do everything without help,” he said. His “orchestra” (a nickname for the Wagner fighters) will remain in field camps in the Donbas region even after withdrawing from Bakhmut.
The feud between Prigozhin and Russia’s military command has intensified after a change of personnel earlier this year, which saw the army decrease support for Wagner troops.
Putin has increasingly relied on the Wagner Group as the war in Ukraine has continued and his forces started to feel their losses. Prigozhin, who made his money through food services and contracts to cater the Kremlin, claimed he founded Wagner to support the 2014 mission in Donbas.
With the increasing reliance on his private forces, Prigozhin appeared to enjoy greater sway at home, but he may have too freely wielded his clout and alienated the Russian military command with whom he needed to collaborate.
With the appointment of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Prigozhin found himself short of the munitions needed to maintain his campaigns and the gains that provided him so much success.
The military command also ended a controversial program that allowed Wagner to recruit almost endlessly from Russia’s prisons.
Prigozhin went on to accuse military command of “treason” for the limitations, especially as his forces made their push for Bakhmut.
“This can be likened to high treason in the very moment when Wagner is fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of its fighters every day,” he in March.
Russia’s defense ministry was pushing back on Prigozhin’s influence after he claimed his soldiers, not the Russian military, won the town of Soledar, just 10 miles north of Bakhmut.
Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, told Fox News Digital that Prigozhin wants autonomy but will continue to “do what Putin wants him to do.”
“He is unlikely to withdraw his fighters from Ukraine,” Koffler explained. “He didn’t really say he would: It’s just a tactic to raise pressure on Shoigu and the military bureaucracy to step up their game.”
“He is positioning to become Putin’s right–hand man in the combat zone and possibly a successor,” she added.
Fox News Digital’s Caitlin McFall and Reuters contributed to this report.