© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An interior view shows PMC Wagner Centre, which is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Novemb
(Reuters) – The increasingly prominent head of the Russian private military group Wagner on Wednesday took aim at the Kremlin administration for failing to block the U.S.-owned video sharing platform YouTube.
“YouTube is the information plague of our time,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a statement posted on his Telegram channel, alleging, without evidence, that 40% of the videos on the platform were “politicised and directed against Russia”.
He said there were two reasons why it had not been banned in Russia, which has clamped down on foreign media since invading Ukraine in February: that it was supposedly indispensable for ordinary citizens and, primarily, the opposition of President Vladimir Putin’s administration.
“We have a huge number of people on Staraya Square in the Presidential Administration who think only about one thing: if only Russia lost the war as soon as possible, if only the Americans would come and regulate us as soon as possible,” Prigozhin said.
“Those who are against the closure of YouTube are, in my opinion, people who are traitors to their people and their country, traitors to previous and future generations of Russians. They live abroad, take holidays abroad, raise children abroad, proclaim high values but, nevertheless, support the West in every possible way and feed on it.”
Tension between Prigozhin and the government burst into the open last Friday when the Defence Ministry claimed the capture of the Ukrainian town of Soledar but made no mention of the role of Wagner, a contract militia that operates outside the army chain of command and had already posted a picture of Prigozhin and his fighters in Soledar’s salt mine.
Prigozhin publicly complained of attempts to minimise Wagner’s role and belittle its achievements, and the ministry later issued an update praising the “courageous and selfless actions” of Wagner fighters. The Kremlin denied a rift.
Prigozhin, sometimes called “Putin’s chef” for the Kremlin contracts of his catering firm, had until last autumn denied any connection with Wagner, which Russian officials say has military and mining contracts in Africa and is active in Syria.
But the invasion of Ukraine, and the repeated failures of Russia’s military in a campaign now almost 11 months old, encouraged him to enter a public arena where most dissenting voices are quickly silenced by the authorities, presenting himself as a ruthless and effective patriot.
With around 90 million monthly users in Russia, YouTube, like Google a unit of Alphabet (NASDAQ:), is extremely popular and plays an important role in the digital economy. Though Russia has domestic versions of other social media, a viable YouTube alternative on that scale is yet to emerge.
Russia has blocked other foreign social media including Instagram and Facebook (NASDAQ:), but despite months of fines and threats against YouTube for failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal and for restricting access to some Russian media, it has stopped short of delivering a killer blow to the video-hosting service.