STORY: As Yevgeny Prigozhin announced the fall of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut…
Russia’s most powerful mercenary appeared to hand its president a rare battlefield victory.
The founder of Wagner group thanked Vladimir Putin for the opportunity to defend the motherland.
But he couldn’t resist breaking some taboos.
“In Bakhmut we were not only fighting the (Armed Forces of Ukraine), we were fighting the Russian bureaucracy,” he said....
Specifically naming and shaming Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
It comes after earlier this month - he used a profanity-laden video to criticize the two, accusing them of allowing five times more men to die than was necessary.
But this kind of speech is dangerous in Putin’s tightly-controlled political system.
Public criticism of the war isn't tolerated.
So how does Priogzhin get away with it?
Officials, diplomats and analysts told Reuters that he's likely acting with the tacit approval of those dismayed by the military’s war conduct.
Sources diverge on how to interpret his actions.
A Russian source said he represents one side in a struggle within Putin’s system.
A former FSB officer said Prigozhin's verbal lobs towards the defense ministry are the 'result of contradictions that have come out within the ruling clan.'
He suggested it could mark the beginning of a struggle for life after Putin.
But one Western diplomat told Reuters - Prigozhin would likely make for a weak potential rebel as he doesn't have an independent logistic capacity.
With an election looming next year, it's unclear how long Putin will tolerate the open war of words.
State television ignored the apparent fall of Bakhmut for 20 hours.
It took the Kremlin 10 to put out a terse congratulatory statement.
It didn't name Prigozhin.
For his part, Priogozhin said he’d hand Bakhmut over to the Russian army by June.
Prigozhin, the Kremlin and the defence ministry did not respond to requests seeking comment.