The head of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group might face punishment under a Russian law ratification he advocated for that prohibits “discrediting” those involved with Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the head and financier of the mercenary Wagner Group that is helping Russian forces fight on the frontlines of Ukraine.
In January, Prigozhin asked Russia State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin to extend Russian laws against “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces to criticizing Wagner fighters and make the punishments harsher. In a letter, he said media and bloggers are unfairly portraying his recruited convicts as “villains and criminals.”
1/ The Wagner Group’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has demanded that criticism of his fighters should be banned in Russia. In a letter published on Telegram, he complains that media and bloggers are unfairly portraying his recruited convicts as “villains and criminals”. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/QrpVgAF2V0
— ChrisO_wiki (@ChrisO_wiki) January 25, 2023
On Wednesday, Volodin announced that the Duma could ratify amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that would increase punishment for “discrediting” the Russian military, including “volunteers” like the Wagner Group, as soon as March 14.
️ISW: Kremlin may leverage Criminal Code amendments to increase punishments for ‘discrediting’ Russian military.
Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin announced that the Duma could ratify amendments to the Russian Criminal Code as soon as March 14.
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) March 2, 2023
“Any public dissemination of knowingly false information, as well as public actions aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, volunteer formations, organizations and individuals who assist in the fulfillment of the tasks assigned to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, are unacceptable,” Volodin wrote.
The punishments for discrediting Russia’s “special military operation” would include a fine of up to 5 million rubles (about $66,450), five years of correctional or forced labor, or a 15-year prison sentence, according to the Russian State Duma.
Russian billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace on June 16, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Prigozhin could be a punished under a Russian law he advocated for that prohibits discrediting those involved with Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
While Prigozhin has advocated for harsher punishments, he is now asking Russian lawmakers to adjust the amendment, arguing that it should not punish criticism of senior Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner Group commanders.
In his letter to Volodin, Prigozhin asked that the new amendments “should not extend to highest command staff of volunteer detachments, including the Wagner PMC,” and the highest command staff of the Russian Ministry of Defense “since this is necessary to ensure transparency and responsibility for the exercise of their powers.”
Otherwise, he wrote, “any public and constructive criticism of their actions can lead to prosecution.”
11/ “These amendments make it possible to protect the rights of persons who protect the interests of the Russian Federation. pic.twitter.com/HD8dZ9vqr8
— ChrisO_wiki (@ChrisO_wiki) March 2, 2023
The letter comes as tensions have grown between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry over the state of the war in Ukraine, which entered its second year on February 24.
Prigozhin recently accused the Russian government of lying about providing the Wagner Group with the ammunition it needs as it engages in heavy fighting with Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut.
“I’d like to emphasize again, if we moved to a public correspondence with the Ministry of Defense, that Wagner PMC is not receiving 80 percent of ammo required to complete combat objectives,” he said in an audio statement shared by Twitter user Dmitri of the War Translated project, an independent entity concerned with translating various materials about the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s drama continues: Russian MoD in a statement earlier today said any complaints made by assault forces on the lack of ammo are untrue.
Prigozhin responded again by saying it was a lie, and spitting into the faces of “heroes” by MoD, committing a crime against them. pic.twitter.com/QjRXFZi0bm
— Dmitri (@wartranslated) February 22, 2023
Over the past few weeks, it appears Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have played a less prominent role in operations around fighting in Bakhmut.
“There is no ammunition. The sapper shovels, for your knowledge, gentlemen leaders of the [Russian] Ministry of Defense, are still not provided,” he said. “If you’re going to provide ammo, do it, and don’t talk about it on the media to the Russian people, deceiving them at the same time.”
Prigozhin also accused the Russian Defense Ministry of treason by intentionally not providing his troops with enough ammunition. He said his fighters are “dying en masse” because of it.
“There is quite simply direct obstruction going on,” Prigozhin said in an audio clip published by his Concord Management and Consulting Company. “This can be equated with high treason.”
He specifically called out Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of trying to “destroy” the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin also recently said Shoigu’s son-in-law should be hit with a “sledgehammer.” He wanted Alexey Stolyarov, 33, to be brought to him so he could be trained to fight in Ukraine.
Stolyarov, a blogger and influencer, was not drafted to fight for Russia and is the partner of Shoigu’s 32-year-old daughter, Ksenia Shoigu.
Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov said the new law might cause trouble for Prigozhin.
“Fakes about PMCs [private military companies] can be expressed in publications where it is said that they are poorly supplied with something, if this is not the case according to official information,” Chikov wrote on Telegram. “But then the question arises, whose official reports about the Wagner PMC will be taken as true?”
For example, the Russian Defense Ministry has denied Prigozhin’s claims about how Wagner is being treated.
Such statements about Wagner fighters being insufficiently supplied, therefore, “may suddenly turn out to be fakes themselves,” Chikov said, noting that Prigozhin is aware of the “risks” of the law.
“Soon nothing can be written about the use of a sledgehammer without the risk of criminalization,” Chikov wrote, referencing Prigozhin’s comments about the Russian Minister of Defense’s son-in-law.
Newsweek reached out to the Wagner Group, Russian State Duma and Russian Defense Ministry for comment.