The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group has said in a rare interview that 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.
Yevgeny 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”, in a move condemned by most countries of the UN as illegal.
“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 in a video published on Friday.
He said that could take up to two years.
“If we have to get to the Dnipro, then it will take about three years,” Mr 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 Russian expectations of the conflict, from a man whose private army is at the centre of some of the fiercest fighting.
Mr Prigozhin does not speak for the Russian military but he has sharply raised his public profile in recent months, including 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.
Speaking at times with vulgar language, Mr 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.”
Mr Prigozhin refrained from further attacks on Russia's military leadership, looking straight into the camera to stress he was not criticising anyone.
But he said it was important that the top command should understand the situation of the men on the front lines.
The US assesses that Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel in 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 Organisation. Mr Prigozhin denied that and asked Washington to “clarify” what crime Wagner was accused of.
Mr Prigozhin said on Friday that Wagner had stopped recruiting prisoners. In the interview, he denied using them as cannon fodder and said losses among prisoners were about the same in percentage terms as for the rest of his fighters.