In late January, with his mercenary forces dying by the thousands in a fight for the ruined city of Bakhmut, Wagner Group owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin made Ukraine an extraordinary offer.
Prigozhin has publicly feuded with Russian military commanders, who he furiously claims have failed to equip and resupply his forces, which have provided vital support to Moscow’s war effort. But he is also an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who might well regard Prigozhin’s offer to trade the lives of Wagner fighters for Russian soldiers as a treasonous betrayal.
The leaked document does not make clear which Russian troop positions Prigozhin offered to disclose.
Two Ukrainian officials confirmed that Prigozhin has spoken several times to the Ukrainian intelligence directorate, known as HUR. One official said that Prigozhin extended the offer regarding Bakhmut more than once, but that Kyiv rejected it because officials don’t trust Prigozhin and thought his proposals could have been disingenuous.
A U.S. official also cautioned that there are similar doubts in Washington about Prigozhin’s intentions. The Ukrainian and U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
In an interview with The Washington Post this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would not confirm the contacts with Prigozhin. “This is a matter of [military] intelligence,” he said. The Ukrainian leader also objected to airing classified information publicly and said he believed that the leaks had benefited Russia.
But there is no debating Prigozhin’s bitter frustration with the grinding fight in Bakhmut. He has complained, publicly and privately, that the Russian Defense Ministry has not given his fighters the ammunition and other resources they need to succeed. Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Over the past few months, in a grinding back and forth measured by city blocks, Ukrainian and Russian forces have taken steep casualties.
Prigozhin, who promised to take control of the city by May 9, in time for Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, has recently threatened publicly to pull his forces out of the fight.
Other leaked documents reveal Russian Defense Ministry officials privately wondering how to respond to Prigozhin’s criticism of the military’s performance and his demands for more resources, which they apparently conceded were not illegitimate grievances. The documents also speak to a power struggle between Prigozhin and top officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Against that tense backdrop, Prigozhin has carried on a secret relationship with Ukrainian intelligence that, in addition to phone calls, includes in-person meetings with HUR officers in an unspecified country in Africa, one document states. Wagner forces provide security to several governments on the continent.
The leaked U.S. intelligence shows Prigozhin bemoaning the heavy toll that fighting has taken on his own forces and urging Ukraine to strike harder against Russian troops.
According to one document, Prigozhin told a Ukrainian intelligence officer that the Russian military was struggling with ammunition supplies. He advised Ukrainian forces to push forward with an assault on the border of Crimea, which Russia has illegally annexed, while Russian troop morale was low. The report also referred to other intelligence noting that Prigozhin was aware of plummeting morale among Wagner forces and that some of his fighters had balked at orders to deploy in the Bakhmut area under heavy fire, for fear of suffering more casualties.
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment about Prigozhin’s communications with Ukraine.
In wartime, it is not unusual for opposing parties to maintain some form of communication. And the documents don’t reveal Prigozhin’s intention in talking to his erstwhile foes in Ukraine. In an interview, a Ukrainian official characterized the contacts in the spirit of “keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.”
The documents also suggest that Kyiv suspects, or may know, that the Kremlin is aware of Prigozhin’s communications with Ukrainian intelligence, if not his secret negotiations over Bakhmut.
One document, based on “sigint” — or intercepted communications — states that Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, “expected the Russians to use details of Prigozhin’s secret talks with the HUR and his meetings with their officers in Africa to make him appear to be a Ukrainian agent.” It doesn’t specify whether Budanov suspects Moscow may already know that Prigozhin is talking to HUR officers.
When informed that U.S. intelligence documents revealed Prigozhin’s communications with Ukrainian intelligence, the mercenary commander appeared to make light of the situation. “Yes of course I can confirm this information, we have nothing to hide from the foreign special services. Budanov and I are still in Africa,” Prigozhin wrote on Sunday via his Telegram channel.
In a subsequent, rambling audio file released Monday, Prigozhin didn’t directly respond to a question about his offer to disclose Russian troop positions in exchange for a Ukrainian pullback in Bakhmut.
Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
The Discord Leaks
In exclusive interviews with a member of the Discord group where U.S. intelligence documents were shared, The Washington Post learned details of the alleged leaker, “OG.” The Post also obtained a number of previously unreported documents from a trove of images of classified files posted on a private server on the chat app Discord.
How the leak happened: The Washington Post reported that the individual who leaked the information shared documents with a small circle of online friends on the Discord chat platform. This is a timeline of how the documents leaked.
The suspected document leaker: Jack Teixeira, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was charged in the investigation into leaks of hundreds of pages of classified military intelligence. Teixeira told members of the online group that he worked as a technology support staffer at a base on Cape Cod, one member of the Discord server told The Post. Here’s what we learned about the alleged document leaker.
What we learned from the leaked documents: The massive document leak has exposed a range of U.S. government secrets, including spying on allies, the grim prospects for Ukraine’s war with Russia and the precariousness of Taiwan’s air defenses. It also has ignited diplomatic fires for the White House. Here’s what we’ve learned from the documents.