LONDON: In a rare interview, the commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force claimed that it may take two years for Moscow to control the whole of two eastern Ukrainian districts whose conquest is a crucial objective of the conflict.

According to Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia’s intention is to totally rule the Donetsk and Luhansk areas, which Moscow declared as “republics” of Russia last year, a move rejected by the majority of United Nations member states as unlawful.

In a video posted on Friday, he told Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, “As far as I can tell, we need to seal off the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, and that should satisfy everyone for the time being.”

He estimated that it may take up to two years.

“If we must reach the Dnipro, it will take about three years,” Prigozhin remarked, alluding to a broader region that would stretch to the huge north-south-running Dnipro River that bisects Ukraine.

A guy whose private army is at the epicentre of some of the heaviest fighting gave a rare peek into Russian expectations for the probable length of the battle.

Prigozhin does not speak for the Russian military, but he has dramatically increased his public profile over the last few months, notably by criticising the army’s leadership for its shortcomings over the course of almost a year of conflict.

He emphasised in the interview that he had “zero” political aspirations.

Prigozhin said, at times using foul language, that Russia must seize Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk that has been the site of violent fighting for months but whose defenders have put up tenacious resistance.

When asked whether Russian troops were nearing a complete blockade of the city, he responded: “It is perhaps too soon to declare that we are close. There are more routes going out than heading in. The Ukrainian military is well-trained, yet, like with any major city, it is difficult to seize Kiev from the front. We are doing quite well, “he remarked.

Prigozhin refrained from additional criticism of the Russian military leadership, addressing the camera directly to emphasise that he was not criticising anybody.

However, he said that it was crucial for the high leadership to comprehend the circumstances of the soldiers on the front lines.

“Therefore, if a general enters a trench and speaks with the men, the soldiers will be f*cking surprised and ecstatic under the present scenario. That will be sufficient for them to realise they are not sitting there alone with their concerns “he stated.

The United States estimates that Wagner has around 50,000 men deployed in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 Russian prisoners recruited from jails.

It has accused the organisation of numerous atrocities and violations of human rights and branded it as a Transnational Criminal Organization last month. Prigozhin rejected this and requested that Washington “clarify” Wagner’s alleged offence.

Friday, Prigozhin said that Wagner had ceased recruiting inmates. In the interview, he denied using them as cannon fodder and said that the rate of captives lost was comparable to that of his other warriors.

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