Wagner captures Russian commander as Prigozhin feud with army escalates

<span>Photograph: Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group of mercenaries has captured a Russian commander, as the notorious leader further escalates his feud with the regular army.

In a video posted on Prigozhin’s social media channels, Lt Col Roman Venevitin, the commander of Russia’s 72nd Brigade, tells an interrogator that, while drunk, he had ordered his troops to fire on a Wagner convoy.

In the footage, which resembled clips of prisoner of war soldiers, Venevitin said he acted because of his “personal dislike” for Wagner and then apologised.

Last week, Prigozhin accused the Russian army of trying to blow up his men as they were pulling back from the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.

The businessman, who is best known as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin, also claimed his men had discovered explosives, which he said were planted on purpose by defence ministry officials.

The Russian ministry of defence has yet to comment on the footage.

Two close family members of Venevitin confirmed to the Guardian that the man filmed in the video was their relative.

Prigozhin, who has been arguing with top military officials for months, announced last week that his troops had largely pulled back from Bakhmut, most of which they captured last month after taking heavy casualties. The city is now believed to be controlled by the regular Russian forces.

The latest incident again exposes the rifts in Moscow’s war machine. It also comes amid an increase in fighting along the frontlines in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, leading to speculation that Kyiv has launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive.

Some nationalist pro-war commentators said Wagner’s arrest of a senior Russian soldier attested to Prigozhin’s growing influence within the Kremlin.

“Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose subordinates posted a video in which they mock a senior officer and an entire brigade commander … is allowed to do whatever he wants. He is considered as the highest caste!” Igor Strelkov, a retired Russian special operations officer and popular military blogger, wrote on his Telegram channel.

Prigozhin’s influence grew as his troops gradually captured Bakhmut in recent months, delivering Moscow the first tangible military victory since last summer.

Since the start of the war, Prigozhin has emerged as one of the most visible power players, frequently using social media to deliver scorching tirades against the defence ministry. His turbulent rise, however, has angered some elements of the Russian elite.

Last week, Prigozhin received rare public criticism when two close allies of the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, described him as a “hysterical blogger” who undermined Russia’s war effort.