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A still from Evgeny Prigozhin’s video, shot in “liberated Bakhmut,” May 20, 2023

Is Prigozhin a loose cannon? The reported capture of Bakhmut has magnified the Wagner Group leader’s influence in the Kremlin, but competitors may cut him down to size

Source: Meduza
A still from Evgeny Prigozhin’s video, shot in “liberated Bakhmut,” May 20, 2023
A still from Evgeny Prigozhin’s video, shot in “liberated Bakhmut,” May 20, 2023
Evgeny Prigozhin’s press service / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Over the past several days, Moscow has been celebrating its purported capture of Bakhmut, even though some Ukrainian units are still fighting for the city. Nevertheless, President Vladimir Putin has personally congratulated Wagner Group and its mercenaries for their role in the assault that, in President Zelensky’s words, left almost nothing of what used to be a thriving city. And while Russia tries to make the most of its reported local victory, the acute conflict between Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s senior military officials is far from over. Prigozhin’s facetious veiled remarks about “some happy grandpa” who is deluded that “all is well” at the front made many a senior official wonder whom exactly he was hinting at. Betting on his military effectiveness, Prigozhin has upped the ante in his political game, but Russia’s national-security establishment doesn’t like “loose cannons” in politics. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev takes stock of Prigozhin’s prospects off the battlefield.

Should Russia’s capture (or near-capture) of Bakhmut be credited to Prigozhin?

The short answer appears to be Yes. The detailed reasons for this are reflected on our most recent combat map.

Prigozhin himself invariably presents the reported capture of Bakhmut as the achievement of his mercenaries. He speaks openly about the way Wagner Group had to conduct an offensive on Bakhmut without adequate support from the Defense Ministry. Publicly addressing the defense minister and the head of the General Staff earlier this month, Prigozhin blasted them with obscenities for withholding the ammunition his units needed but couldn’t get.

Still, Prigozhin does acknowledge that Wagner Group intermittently got help from the Russian military’s artillery and aviation. The regular army’s 106th Guards Airborne Division was present in Bakhmut during the assault, even though it only played a supporting role in the operation.

Why is it ‘capture or near-capture’?

Has Bakhmut been captured? Meduza’s updated battle map and a discussion of the bloodiest battle of the Russia-Ukraine war

Why is it ‘capture or near-capture’?

Has Bakhmut been captured? Meduza’s updated battle map and a discussion of the bloodiest battle of the Russia-Ukraine war

Why did Prigozhin invest so much into taking Bakhmut?

Prigozhin has previously mentioned that Wagner Group’s ambition had been to take Bakhmut by May 9 (when Russia celebrates Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe), but ammunition shortages ultimately foiled that plan.

Just before Victory Day, the increasingly furious Prigozhin demanded more ammunition, threatening that his formations would leave their positions in Bakhmut if they didn’t get adequate supplies. On Victory Day itself, Prigozhin posted a 27-minute-long video lambasting the Russian military leadership and some unnamed “happy grandpa” who is deluded that all is well, despite problems on the frontline. Prigozhin never made clear whom exactly he was hinting at, later proposing not one, but several different meanings for his own tirade. None of them, of course, had anything to do with Putin.

However ambiguous his statements, two Kremlin insiders have told Meduza that Prigozhin had given Putin a “personal promise” to capture Bakhmut. What the Kremlin needed was “some more or less significant victory,” without specific dates or deadlines.

Prigozhin understood this goal should be achieved as soon as possible, and this is why he was losing patience with the Defense Ministry. Around the time he posted his furious videos, Prigozhin, it appears, felt his influence over Putin slip as the Bakhmut operation dragged on. (It took Wagner Group nearly eight months of fighting to capture this city with a pre-war population of 70,000.) Around the same time, it emerged that the mercenary outfit would no longer be permitted to recruit new fighters in Russia’s penal colonies.

The reported capture of Bakhmut may be a good way for Prigozhin to regain Putin’s favor. This may have indeed already happened. On May 21, the Kremlin’s official website displayed a notice of the president’s thanks to Wagner Group’s “assault groups” for the “liberation of Artyomovsk” (that is, for capturing Bakhmut). “Everyone who distinguished themselves will be presented with state decorations,” the president promised.

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Won’t Prigozhin face repercussions for dropping hints about the ‘grandpa’?

Even inside the Putin administration, some perceived Prigozhin’s inflammatory message as a thinly veiled criticism of Putin. In conversation with Meduza, sources close to the Kremlin were of the opinion that Prigozhin has long since “crossed the red line” in attacking the Defense Ministry.

A state media insider told Meduza that, in early May (that is, before Bakhmut was allegedly captured by Prigozhin’s troops), propaganda workers received a Kremlin memo to the effect that, if Prigozhin goes on lambasting the Russian leadership and talking about its military failures, the media should begin framing him as a traitor.

After Bakhmut was reportedly captured, the media had to change its approach. A Kremlin insider is certain that, at least in the near future, nothing can happen to Prigozhin. “No one is going to touch the victorious marshal of Bakhmut, no matter what he does,” he expects.

How much influence does Prigozhin really have?

Prigozhin’s influence over Putin and the Russian political establishment needn’t be exaggerated. He doesn’t always achieve even his more modest goals, despite his longtime connection with the president. Prigozhin has long been engaged in an open offensive on St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, one of Russia’s least lucky politicians. And yet, Beglov still has his position. Prigozhin tried to discredit General Alexander Lapin, but the latter got promoted and is now chief of staff for Russia’s ground forces. Prigozhin attacked Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and Putin still put Gerasimov in charge of the Russian grouping in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Gerasimov’s predecessor at this post, General Sergey Surovikin (more of a favorite with Prigozhin), was demoted to Gerasimov’s second-in-command.

Overall, Prigozhin looks like a specimen of a certain kind of player that the Russian political “power vertical” has been diligently trying to expel for the past 30 years, through concerted removals from office and jailings. This type is represented by influential entrepreneurs and well-connected deputies, individuals with a rich criminal or semi-criminal past (Prigozhin does, in fact, have a felony conviction) and substantial legalized assets. Such figures can offer their resources to the state while expecting reciprocal favors in return. They may sometimes get what they want from the state, but this doesn’t always work, and the extent of their reward may not always rise to their expectations.

In the past, Prigozhin followed this model in trying to build a relationship with Governor Beglov: Prigozhin’s political consultants aided Beglov’s election campaign, and in return, Prigozhin expected preferential treatment when bidding for state contracts in St. Petersburg. But he didn’t get what he wanted.

Now, having apparently completed his “Bakhmut project,” Prigozhin is likely expecting a reward, once again. This time, it’ll have to be something more significant.

Will Prigozhin persist in his attacks on the Defense Ministry?

This is uncertain. When proclaiming the capture of Bakhmut, Prigozhin once again criticized the Defense Ministry, saying that his mercenaries in Bakhmut battled with the Russian military bureaucracy. In his words, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov had “turned the war into a personal amusement.”

Hypothetically, Prigozhin could, at minimum, insist that Wagner Group should once again be able to recruit convicts in Russian prisons. (During the Bakhmut operation, convicts were openly used as dispensable “cannon fodder.”) What’s unclear, though, is whether Prigozhin is still up for taking part in the invasion. What we do know is that, according to his press service, Wagner formations are beginning to leave Bakhmut.

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What should we, then, expect of Prigozhin?

For the foreseeable future, Prigozhin will likely remain a fixture of Russian politics, where he’s already achieved considerable success. In the early months of 2023, for example, he made it into Interfax’s list of Russia’s top 10 media personalities. (Tellingly, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has dropped off that list.) According to a survey conducted by Russian Field, Prigozhin would likely garner two percent of the vote in the 2024 presidential election if he were to run. (Putin, according to the same survey, would get 15 times more votes.)

What Prigozhin wants is, apparently, to become the face of the Russian war with Ukraine. At the very least, he’d like to be the figurehead of Russia’s few military successes. Having no official post in the country is only an advantage in this regard. Unlike the government officials and members of establishment political parties, whose range of permissible public statements is very narrow, Prigozhin is accountable to no one and enjoys matchless freedom in what he can say. He is the only figure who can openly attack the Russian military leadership (and perhaps even Putin himself) while there’s a parade in Red Square. He can turn recruiting convicts in prisons into a reality show and effectively cultivate a populist image while remaining on equal footing with the “elites” (which is, of course, the norm in populist politics).

Does Prigozhin have any real political ambitions?

Prigozhin likes to say that he’s not a politician, but this means very little apart from highlighting his anti-elitist position. It bears remembering, though, that just two years ago Prigozhin tried to co-opt the Rodina political party to his own ends, attempting to advance its candidates into the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in order to influence the municipal government by proxy. Now, Prigozhin is trying something similar with the Just Russia party.

This indicates the Wagner Group founder’s interest in shaping political life in St. Petersburg, his home city. He might possibly have further ambitions for influencing Russian federal politics too. Running for office is completely unnecessary for achieving this goal, and Prigozhin appears to understand this very well himself.

Of course, had he wanted to run for office, the Kremlin’s political bloc could hardly have permitted this, since the Russian political establishment treats anyone behaving like Prigozhin as a loose cannon: uncontrollable, and therefore undesirable.

Can Prigozhin find a niche in Russian politics after the war?

His openly anti-elite rhetoric may well pay off for Prigozhin, even in a scenario where Vladimir Putin’s regime crumbles.

If the Russian “power vertical” were to collapse, Prigozhin might well emerge as one of the few actors with both money and muscle at their disposal. Another “enfant terrible” of Russian politics, Ramzan Kadyrov, appears to sympathize with him as well. These factors could advance Prigozhin’s ability to influence events in the country.

He could also opt to trade his present publicity for immunity and lucrative entrepreneurial projects. This, too, would constitute a success, albeit of a different kind.

But Prigozhin’s true prospects cannot be grasped without reference to yet another kind of typical fate in Russian politics. This is the fate of field commanders and civilian bureaucrats from the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “republics.” Prigozhin does resemble some of those people, with his dare-devil ways and his desire for contrast against the comfortable establishment. Many of those Russian appointees launched their careers as abruptly as they later ended, in terrorist killings or else death in mysterious circumstances. The Russian government hastily blamed their deaths on “armed Ukrainian sabotage groups,” while Kyiv, in turn, denied any part in their demise, arguing that the likelier beneficiary of these killings would be the Kremlin itself.

Prigozhin must now be considering these risks, but no amount of thought is likely to eliminate them as such.

Prigozhin talks to the media

‘We need to take a page from North Korea’s book’ Evgeny Prigozhin speaks even more frankly than usual in new 77-minute interview

Prigozhin talks to the media

‘We need to take a page from North Korea’s book’ Evgeny Prigozhin speaks even more frankly than usual in new 77-minute interview

Andrey Pertsev

Translated by Anna Razumnaya

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