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Ex-Russian Commander Slams Head of Wagner Group Over ‘War Crimes’

A war of words between critics of President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the war in Ukraine has escalated, with former Russian commander Igor Girkin accusing Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, of “psychopathy” and of committing “war crimes.”

Girkin, also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, called for Prigozhin’s removal as the head of the Wagner Group on his Telegram channel. The paramilitary group was founded in 2014 and is heavily involved in current fighting in Ukraine, particularly in Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, alongside Russia’s conventional troops.

Both Girkin, an ex-Federal Security Service (FSB) operative, and Prigozhin have been increasingly vocalizing their discontent with the Russian leader, but they have also notably been publicly arguing among themselves in recent weeks.

On Sunday, Girkin took aim at the Wagner Group head’s claim that Russia’s front line in eastern Ukraine “will crumble” if he pulls his fighters from the region. In a video message, Prigozhin said Ukrainian forces may as a result advance to Russia’s borders or “maybe even further.”

Prigozhin’s statements are “an example of shameless ‘criminal’ self promotion,” wrote Girkin, who has regularly been critical of Russia’s war effort.

“In the event of the disbandment or removal of ‘Wagner’ from the front, the situation for the [Russian] Armed Forces will undoubtedly become worse, but—against the general background—insignificantly.”

“To withdraw Prigozhin himself from the front and COMPLETELY remove him from the leadership of Wagner is urgently necessary,” Girkin continued.

“Since his political ambitions (multiplied by psychopathy, the organization and demonstrative war crimes, a tendency to [be] shameless and in many respects false promotion and the spread of rotten ‘criminal concepts’ to the armed forces) only harm both Wagner and the common cause of victory over Ukraine.”

Girkin also suggested on Telegram that Prigozhin is squandering manpower in Bakhmut. The Wagner Group’s tactics, Girkin wrote, is the “reckless expenditure of human resources.”

Wagner has a “very minor effect” on the overall strategic situation on the front line in Ukraine, Girkin said.

“Both due to the incorrect and wasteful use of its forces, and due to considerations of the scale of the war, in which a fierce battle (has not yet finished) for a small town in the Donbas is neither general nor decisive, it is of an operational-tactical nature and leads only to mutual huge loss of combatants.”

Ukraine’s military has been contemplating pulling troops back from Bakhmut. Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, recently told CNN that Kyiv’s military is “obviously going to weigh all of the options.” “So far, they’ve held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back,” he said.

Although Prigozhin is an ally of Putin, he regularly criticizes the Kremlin and especially defense officials for setbacks in Ukraine. He made headlines in the fall of 2022 for his criticism of the Defense Ministry and Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.

He responded to Girkin’s Telegram post in a statement published by the press service of the Concord company, which he owns, by saying that to discuss remarks made by Girkin would be “indecent.”

“If he wants, he can come to the council of commanders and ask to become the head of the Wagner PMC,” he wrote.

In January, the pair had another very public late when Girkin accused Prigozhin of “deliberately misconstruing” his criticism of the latter’s political aspirations as an attack on the Wagner Group’s fighters. The former Russian commander also accused Prigozhin of continuing to commit his forces to support operations in Syria and African countries instead of to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Prigozhin in response shut down claims that he has political ambitions in Russia and said that he could not withdraw his forces from Africa because he “made a promise to several presidents” that he will “defend them.”

The Wagner Group has been accused of committing human rights violations in other countries where it is present such as Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.

According to Vlad Mykhnenko, an expert in the post-communist transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the University of Oxford, there is a “growing grassroots, fascist, imperialist network of people, not created by FSB, but [that] has naturally grown over the years in Russia.”

“It looks like there is a niche of probably 15 percent of the Russian population, the voters who would probably vote for some kind of party like that,” Mykhnenko told Newsweek.

“And I presume Girkin on the one hand and Prigozhin on the other, are effectively fighting for that electorate, which they think will come in handy when there is a transition of power from Putin to somebody else.”

A war of words between critics of President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the war in Ukraine has escalated, with former Russian commander Igor Girkin accusing Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, of “psychopathy” and of committing “war crimes.”

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