Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary boss, has posted an image of his dead troops in Ukraine, blaming army chiefs for their deaths and urging ordinary Russians to assist his group.
On Tuesday, Prigozhin went on a tirade, accusing the defense minister and chief of staff of attempting to destroy his Wagner mercenaries by depriving them of ammunition.
Wagnerites have been deeply involved in the siege of Bakhmut in east Ukraine.
The defence ministry denied his claims.
“All statements allegedly made by assault units on shell shortages are absolutely untrue,” it said, without naming either Prigozhin or the Wagner group.
Describing the arming of mercenary groups as a priority, the ministry listed 1,660 rockets, 10,171 artillery rounds and mortars and 980 tank rounds that had been supplied between Saturday 18 February and the following Monday.
Prigozhin, who founded Wagner, for years had close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin but the war in Ukraine has prompted an increasingly bitter rivalry between the mercenaries and the regular army, and analysts believe he no longer has the president’s ear.
Mercenary groups like Wagner are supposedly illegal in Russia but Prigozhin has not only registered it as a company but was filmed last year openly recruiting for the war from Russia’s prisons.
Last month Wagner claimed victory in the eastern town of Soledar, only for the defence ministry to say later that it was in control of the town.
The fight for Bakhmut has gone on for more than six months and has become the main focus of the Russian offensive in the east. The campaign is believed to have cost thousands of lives.
Never one to hold back, Prigozhin complained that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov not only prevented ammunition from being sent but did not help with air transport or even providing shovels for digging trenches.
Such direct opposition within the military to equipping his fighters amounted to treason, he said.
When the ministry denied his allegations, he hit back describing its statement as “spitting” at Wagner, complaining it had not received 80% of the ammunition requested to carry out its combat missions.
He then posted a picture, apparently from the Bakhmut area, of the corpses of dozens of mercenaries killed in battle lying on the frozen ground awaiting collection.
“These are the guys who died yesterday because of so-called ‘shell shortages’. There are five times more of them than there should have been,” he said in an audio message to his press service.
He called on Russians to demand publicly, but without resorting to demonstrations, that the defence ministry give ammunition to his troops.
The raw power struggle at the heart of Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted commentators to speculate whether Prigozhin is being squeezed out by Gen Gerasimov, who was recently put in charge of the campaign.
Pro-Kremlin pundit Sergei Markov said Russians who backed the war were clearly backing Prigozhin and the squabble would undermine the defence ministry’s authority.
Russia expert Mark Galeotti said that if ammunition was being withheld then, along with the rotation of Wagner troops away from Bakhmut, “it sets [the] scene for regulars to deliver Putin his first victory (however meaningless) for some time”.
“We will not leave Bakhmut,” vowed Prigozhin in his audio message. “We’ll simply die in double the numbers until all [the Wagnerites] are finished. And when the Wagnerites are completely finished, most likely Shoigu and Gerasimov will have to pick up machine guns.”