Yevgeny Prigozhin, a well known Putin ally and the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has said it could take two years for Moscow to control the whole of two eastern Ukrainian regions whose capture it has stated as a key goal of the war.
In a rare interview, Prigozhin said his understanding of Russia’s plan was that it needed to fully control the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that Moscow last year claimed as “republics” of Russia, in a move condemned by the United Nations as illegal.
He said that could take 1-1/2 to two years.
“As far as I understand, we need to close off the Donetsk and Luhansk republics and in principle that will suit everyone for now,” he told Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov .
“If we have to get to the Dnipro, then it will take about three years,” Prigozhin added, referring to a larger area that would extend to the vast Dnipro River that runs roughly north to south, bisecting Ukraine.
The comments provided a rare glimpse into expectations of Russia as Prigozhin’s private army is at the centre of some of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine.
Prigozhin does not speak for the Russian military but he has sharply raised his public profile in recent months, by criticising the army leadership for its failures in nearly 12 months of war.
In the interview, however, he insisted he had “zero” political ambitions.
Prigozhin said Russia needed to capture Bakhmut – a city in Donetsk that has been the scene of brutal warfare for months but faced fierce resistance from Ukrainian defenders.
Asked if Russian forces were close to achieving a full blockade of the city, he said: “It is probably too early to say that we are close. There are many roads out and fewer roads in. Ukrainian troops are well trained … and like any large city it is impossible to capture it from head-on. We are managing very well,” he said.
The United States says that Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
It has accused the group of committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses and designated it last month as a Transnational Criminal Organization. Prigozhin denied that and asked Washington to “clarify” what crime Wagner was accused of.