Putin ally Prigozhin praises Ukraine's Zelenskiy as 'strong, confident' leader

(Reuters) - Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the founder of the Wagner private military group, has praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a strong and confident leader who should not be underestimated.

His comments underlined Prigozhin's rising public profile and growing confidence in speaking out on sensitive issues around the war in Ukraine in defiance of the standard Moscow line.

"Although he is the president of a country hostile to Russia at the moment, Zelenskiy is a strong, confident, pragmatic and nice guy," Prigozhin said in a statement shared on the Vkontatke social media platform by the press service of his Concord catering firm.

"Don't underestimate him," Prigozhin said in a second statement, after he was asked why he was heaping praise on a man that Moscow has largely criticised, belittled and attacked since he came to power in 2019.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said it was interesting that Prigozhin was voicing a view far removed from Putin's that others in the ruling elite might not dare to express. "Prigozhin dared. He thinks he has a right and he thinks it wouldn't anger Putin," she said.

Prigozhin has made a series of outspoken interventions in recent weeks, joining with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in ridiculing the performance of Russia's generals in Ukraine.

Last month he publicly confirmed for the first time that he was the founder of Wagner, a private military group he has deployed to fight in Syria, Africa and Ukraine. The United States and European Union have sanctioned Prigozhin for his role in the group.

Stanovaya said Prigozhin was not angling for a formal power role. "I think that for him it’s more like a 'business project' that he needs to 'sell' to Putin to be closer tied to the Kremlin," she said.

"He would avoid any real official responsibility, it’s more comfortable to remain in the in-between space, between the state and non-official status."

Prigozhin's comments on Zelenskiy are a stark contrast to the characterisation of the Ukrainian leader that Putin and other senior officials have peddled.

A day after he launched the invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to oust Zelenskiy from office, saying it would be easier to deal with generals than the "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis" currently in power.

Russian state media outlets and social media pages linked to the Kremlin have pushed baseless claims that Zelenskiy is a drug addict. "He says many things. It depends on what he drinks or what he smokes," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of him in one interview.

In the West and in Ukraine, Zelenskiy has been lauded for his motivational war leadership, including online speeches to parliaments around the world to rally support for Kyiv.

Asked why he praised Zelenskiy, Prigozhin said: "To become stronger, to win, you need to treat the opponent with respect. Don't underestimate him. Always look for flaws in yourself, and see what's good and important that can be learned from the experience of the enemy."

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Mark Heinrich)