By Kostan Nechyporenko, Victoria Butenko, Anna Chernova and Sana Noor Haq, CNN
Yevgeny Prigozhin has denied a report that he proposed sharing Russian intelligence with Kyiv in exchange for ceded territory around the besieged city of Bakhmut — a denial that came days after the Wagner chief issued a series of criticisms revealing deep fissures within Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
The Washington Post article was based on a trove of highly classified US intelligence documents leaked on social media in April, which revealed the degree to which the US has penetrated Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The Post reported Sunday that Prigozhin offered to give the Ukrainian military information on Russian troop positions if Kyiv would pull back its forces from the area around Bakhmut, which remains a key battleground in the Kremlin’s attempted advance through eastern Ukraine.
Prigozhin made the offer to Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, known as HUR, in January, the Post alleged. It quoted one leaked document as stating that Prigozhin met HUR officers in an unspecified country in Africa.
But the head of the Russian paramilitary group speculated the story could have been planted by his enemies, according to an audio message posted to his Telegram channel on Monday.
“I can say with confidence, if we’re being serious, that I have not been in Africa at least since the beginning of the conflict, but in fact a few months before the start of the SMO (Special Military Operation),” Prigozhin said, referring to Moscow’s euphemism for the war in Ukraine.
“Therefore, I simply could not meet with anyone there physically.”
In his message, Prigozhin asked rhetorically, “Who is behind this? I think that either some journalists decided to hype, or comrades from Rublyovka have now decided to make up a beautiful, planted story.” Rublyovka is the name of an affluent neighborhood in Moscow along the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye highway, which is known for its luxurious residential estates and mansions for the Russian elite.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Monday that he could not comment on the Washington Post report, other than to say, “It looks like another hoax.”
Andriy Yusov, a representative of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, declined to comment when he was asked about the Post report on Ukrainian television on Monday, saying: “Who would benefit from discussing such initiatives now?”
CNN reached out to Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate for comment. It said it had nothing to add to Yusov’s comments.
Prigozhin’s audio message on Monday was the latest outburst from the Wagner head, who has launched a storm of criticism against the Kremlin in recent weeks, accusing it of negligence amid Moscow’s faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Last week, he accused a Russian brigade of abandoning its position in frontline Bakhmut and allowing Ukraine to take territory, saying the 72nd brigade “just ran the hell out of there.”
Bakhmut is the site of a months-long attack by Russian troops, including Wagner fighters, that has ravaged the embattled city and forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes. But Moscow has so far been unable to gain ground and instead sustained heavy losses, despite swarming the area with huge amounts of manpower.
Soon after Prigozhin’s tirade, the Ukrainian commander of a battalion involved in the country’s attack on Russian positions near Bakhmut told CNN the first Russians to abandon the area were Wagner fighters, contradicting Prigozhin’s claims.
Kyiv also said it was operating “effective counterattacks” in the Bakhmut area, matching remarks by Prigozhin that Kyiv had recaptured some territory.
At the same time, Prigozhin criticized the Russian military’s focus on the Victory Day parade last week — marring an occasion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously used to show off Moscow’s unity and military might.
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CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood, Tim Lister, Uliana Pavlova, Christian Edwards, Julia Kesaieva, Olga Voitovych, Vasco Cotovio and Katharina Krebs contributed reporting.