Russia: Can Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin challenge Putin?

Is he a threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin (photo: DW)
Yevgeny Prigozhin (photo: DW)
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DW

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, has become one of the prominent figures in Russia's war against Ukraine. His harsh and unprecedented criticism of Russia's military command has caused him to be seen as a potential threat to President Vladimir Putin. But is he as influential as he appears to be?

The Wagner Group is notorious for its cruelty and brutal tactics on the battlefield. It has also demonstrated its ruthlessness off the battlefield in videos of alleged executions of its fighters who defected to Ukraine.

Wagner has adopted the sledgehammer as its symbol after reportedly using it to execute a defector from its ranks last year.

"Ostentatious cruelty is part of what Prigozhin offers. Whatever it is — a staged piece, trolling or immersive performance — it does not stop being part of an advertising campaign that promotes a cult of violence," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta.

From prison, to hot dogs, to 'Putin's chef'

Born in 1961, in what was then Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg, Prigozhin reportedly spent his 20s in a Soviet prison where he served nine years for robbery and fraud. Release from prison and the fall of the Soviet Union allowed Prigozhin to embark on an entrepreneurial path. He started with hot dog carts in his hometown, and later moved to bigger projects, such as a luxurious restaurant in St. Petersburg, which became a hub for Russian elites, including then-deputy mayor Vladimir Putin.

Having benefited from close ties with political elites, Prigozhin's business expanded further after Putin became president. His catering company Concord, founded in the 1990s, was awarded exclusive and lucrative government contracts for state dinners, including Putin's inauguration ceremony and a visit by US President George W. Bush to St. Petersburg. The contracts earned Prigozhin the nickname "Putin's chef."

However, Prigozhin did not limit his ambitions to the catering industry.

Election meddling and military 'gray services' for Russia

On February 14, 2023 Prigozhin admitted he was behind the Internet Research Agency, better known as a network of troll factories. According to the FBI, the agency launched a widespread disinformation campaign to influence the results of the 2016 US presidential election. The allegations had previously been fiercely denied by Prigozhin and his lawyers, who have taken legal action against journalists writing about his connection to Russian troll farms.

In 2014, Prigozhin set up a private military company Wagner Group. As with the troll factories, he long denied any involvement with the group until September 2022, when he admitted to having formed the unit.

Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent Russian analyst, told DW that Prigozhin's mercenary outfit was providing "gray services" for Putin.

"He was making his boss' and his inner circle's life easier in the regions where they did not want to be involved publicly and officially," said Prokopenko. "For instance, in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine, as well as Africa and Syria, where Wagner mercenaries not only participated in combat actions but also guarded some oil facilities."

Wagner Group vs. the Russian army

Wagner mercenaries first became involved in Ukraine in 2014, when they helped Russia-backed separatists illegally annex the Crimean Peninsula. After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the ability of Wagner fighters to make progress in fierce battles in eastern Ukraine became an important military asset for the Kremlin. In January 2023, Wagner claimed it had taken control of the Ukrainian city of Soledar, seen as one of Moscow's rare victories since the beginning of the war.

The efficiency of the Wagner Group, and its rising importance on the battlefield, has allowed Prigozhin to launch an embarrassing campaign against Russia's top military officials.

Amid public outcry over the lack of ammunition for Russian soldiers, he has accused military leaders of incompetence. In a seven-minute audio message on February 20, 2023 Prigozhin accused Russia's top military commanders of "treason" for depriving his troops of ammunition.

"I'm unable to solve this problem despite all my connections and contacts," he complained, adding that he was required to "apologize and obey" to secure ammunition for his fighters. The Russian Defense Ministry has denied Prigozhin's accusations, saying that such statements were "absolutely untrue."

A day later, in response, Prigozhin released another audio message, claiming that the actions of military officials are "tantamount to nothing more than simply spitting at Wagner."

Prigozhin has also personally attacked Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top Russian General Valery Gerasimov, who was responsible for the modernization of the army. In one of his latest critiques in May, he blamed Russian military bureaucracy for unsuccessful attempts to capture Bakhmut, which for several months has been at the center of the conflict with severe Russian and Ukrainian casualties.

"Bakhmut would have been taken before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy [...] and the spokes that are put in the wheels daily," Prigozhin told Russian state media.

According to Kolesnikov, only Putin has a mandate to criticize military officials in Russia's autocratic system.

"Putin needs Prigozhin for the function of keeping military generals on their toes," he said. "That is how Putin balances the 'weights' of the various figures, pushes them against each other, keeps an eye on them so that none of these figures is excessively strengthened."

Despite Prigozinh's dressing down of military officials, the Russian president promoted Gerasimov earlier in January, making him an overall commander in Ukraine. The move, analysts argued, showed the limited significance of Prigozhin's rhetoric on Putin's decision-making.

'Headache for everyone in the Kremlin'

The formerly media-shy Prigozhin has become the face of Russia's war against Ukraine. His rising publicity has given rise to speculation of possible political ambitions. According to the independent Russian website Meduza, Prigozhin was planning to launch a patriotic and conservative movement that would eventually evolve into a political party — an idea he has publicly denied.

As Tatiana Stanovaya wrote in the article for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Prigozhin's ambitions in the political arena may damage his relations with the Kremlin. "The domestic policy overseers don't like his political demagogy, his attacks on official institutions, or his attempts to troll Putin's staff by threatening to form a political party, which would be a headache for everyone in the Kremlin."

The Kremlin's desire to tighten the reins on Prigozhin was seen in the move to strip him of the right to recruit convicts who, according to the US National Security Council, make up 80% of Wagner troops. In an interview with Russian military bloggers and state media this week, he acknowledged that after the downsizing, the Wagner Group would have a more limited role in Russia's war effort.

Prigozhin's only path is to become a politician, given the responsibilities that he has been assigned, said Kolesnikov.

"However, Putin doesn't want to bring him into the legal field, which would mean strengthening him as a politician," the analyst told DW. "As long as Vladimir Putin is able to subtly control political forces, he can withdraw Prigozhin from the chessboard at the right time and put him back to his usual place — in underground politics."

Edited by: Sean Sinico

February 22, 2023: This article was updated with Prigozhin's accusations of "treason" against Russia's top military commanders.

June 23, 2023: This article was updated with Prigozhin's call for an armed rebellion against Russia's military leadership.

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