Wagner Founder Rebuffs Order Over Fighter Contracts With Russian Military

The leader of Russia’s Wagner private military company said Sunday that his group would not comply with an order that would require it to sign a formal contract with Russia’s defense ministry by July 1.

The blunt refusal to comply with the order marks the latest flashpoint in a long-running feud between the mercenary boss, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, and Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, that has highlighted disunity in Moscow’s ranks and infighting over the management of Russian troops in Ukraine.

For months, Mr. Prigozhin has been publicly lambasting Mr. Shoigu and Russia’s military leadership, characterizing them as incompetent fat-cat bureaucrats who are ruining operations in Ukraine.

On Saturday, deputy defense minister Nikolai Pankov, announced that the more than 40 “volunteer formations” fighting in Ukraine outside the traditional Russian military would be required to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1 to assume formal legal status.

But Mr. Prigozhin released a statement Sunday on the Telegram messaging app saying he refused to “sign any contracts with Shoigu” and renewing his critiques of the defense minister. Wagner was already “organically” integrated into the overall Russian system, Mr. Prigozhin said, with experienced unit commanders from his forces coordinating with Russian generals in a highly effective structure.

“Unfortunately, most military units do not possess such efficiency, namely because Shoigu cannot manage military formations normally,” Mr. Prigozhin said. “Therefore, the fact that he writes decrees or orders — that applies exclusively to the defense ministry and to those who are within the framework of the defense ministry.”

The ministry is in the middle of a drive to recruit more contract soldiers for the fight in Ukraine and has been competing with private military formations like Wagner for talent. The Russian state has also been a step behind the mercenary group in finding new recruiting methods.

The defense ministry, for example, followed Mr. Prigozhin’s lead and began recruiting from Russian prisons last year. British intelligence estimated that Russia’s army likely recruited 10,000 fighters in April alone from prisons.

In his statement Sunday, Mr. Prigozhin suggested that his refusal to comply with the order could result in blowback for Wagner, but made clear that despite his criticism of Mr. Shoigu, his forces would still be called upon when needed and remained loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian state.

“Wagner is absolutely completely subordinate to the interests of the Russian Federation and the supreme commander in chief,” Mr. Prigozhin wrote.

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