Can Wagner head Prigozhin challenge Vladimir Putin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin has admitted to leading the Wagner Group of mercenaries and a massive internet troll farm. But is he a threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin or is he doing just what the Kremlin leader wants?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, became 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 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 also demonstrated its ruthlessness off the battlefield in videos of alleged executions of its fighters who defected to Ukraine. On Monday, a video published on the Telegram channel Grey Zone, widely believed to be affiliated with the group, showed a Wagner fighter and ex-convict, who identified himself as Dmitry Yakushchenko, apparently being beaten to death with a sledgehammer. But Wednesday, Prigozhin appeared in front of military bloggers and state media with the “executed fighter,” referring to him as “a fine fellow, who brought a big amount of important information from Ukrainian captivity.”

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, Yevgeny Prigozhin reportedly spent his twenties in a Soviet prison where he served nine years for robbery and fraud. His 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 cooking for Putin’s inauguration ceremony and US President George W. Bush’s visit 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 ‘grey services’ for Russia

On Tuesday, 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 elections. The allegations were previously 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 forming 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,” Prokopenko said. “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 Russian-backed separatists illegally annex the Crimean peninsula. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Wagner fighters’ ability to make progress in fierce battles in eastern Ukraine became an important military asset for the Kremlin. Last month, Wagner claimed it took control of the Ukrainian city of Soledar, which was seen as one of Moscow’s rare victories since the beginning of the war.

The Wagner Group’s efficiency and the rising importance on the battlefield 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 accused military leaders of incompetency and 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, 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 Vladimir 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,” she 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 found a patriotic and conservative movement that would eventually evolve into a political party — an idea he has publicly denied.

As Tatyana 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 in Ukraine.

Prigozhin’s only path is to become a politician, given the responsibilities that he has been assigned, according to 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

Author: Maria Katamadze

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