Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Friday that the official Kremlin-backed version of why Moscow invaded Ukraine was based on lies concocted by his perennial adversary - the army's top brass.
Prigozhin has for months been accusing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence, but on Friday he for the first time rejected Russia's core justifications for invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what it calls a "special military operation."
.".. the Defence Ministry is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO," Prigozhin said in a video clip released on Telegram by his press service, calling the official version "a beautiful story."
"The special operation was started for different reasons," he said. "The war was needed ... so that Shoigu could become a marshal ... so that he could get a second 'Hero' [of Russia] medal. The war wasn't needed to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine."
He also said the war had been needed to acquire "material assets" to divide among the ruling elite
Prigozhin portrays his Wagner private militia, which spearheaded the capture of the city of Bakhmut last month, as Russia's most effective fighting force, and has enjoyed unusual freedom to publicly criticize Moscow, albeit not President Vladimir Putin, on whose support he ultimately depends.
Yet his latest assertion runs directly counter to the rationale for the war espoused by Putin, who said when sending his armed forces into Ukraine that it was to demilitarize and denazify a country that posed a threat to Russia.
The Kremlin leader casts the conflict as an existential struggle against a Western alliance that wants to use Ukraine as a platform to destroy Russia.
There was no immediate response from the Defence Ministry, which has ignored previous complaints from Prigozhin, in public at least. Nor was there any immediate reaction from the Kremlin, which has declined in the past to comment on Prigozhin's outbursts.