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The mystery of Evgeny Prigozhin Why does Putin let Wagner Group’s founder make statements that would land anyone else in court?

Source: iStories

In recent months, Wagner Group paramilitary cartel founder Evgeny Prigozhin has repeatedly made statements that nobody else in Russia would be able to get away with. As the independent outlet iStories recently noted, Prigozhin frequently refers to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a war, rather than the Russian government’s preferred (and legally-mandated) term, “special military operation”; he regularly insults the country’s military leaders publicly; and he’s openly acknowledged that the war against Ukraine has failed miserably to bring the changes Vladimir Putin intended. What’s more, he’s spoken positively about jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his ability to expose corruption in the Russian government, and he’s raised the prospect of the Russian people lifting the country’s elites on pitchforks. Any one of these comments would have been enough to land anybody else in court, if not behind bars, but Prigozhin is currently touring around the country giving press conferences. To better understand why the firebrand tycoon is allowed so much leeway, journalists from iStories spoke to former Russian intelligence officers, a person close to the Russian Defense Ministry, and a business owner close to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Meduza is publishing translations of their explanations.

‘He reins in the elites’

Former Russian intelligence officer

I have no doubt that all of Prigozhin’s activities are coordinated with the man at the top. The things [Prigozhin] allows himself to say — all of these statements directed at the Defense Ministry leadership and the Russian elites overall — indicate not that he’s playing by his own rules but that, on the contrary, everything is coordinated. In our country, those kinds of antics are dealt with very quickly if they’re not approved by number one.

Why does Putin need this? The popular theory among security officials is that Prigozhin is the sword of Damocles that hangs over the elites: he reins them in and maintains an atmosphere of fear. Putin is perfectly aware of the mood among the elites; he gets transcripts of their phone conversations. He knows that there are a lot of elites, including some who once belonged to his inner circle, who have doubts about the goals of the special military operation and the course of isolation that he’s chosen for the country. But it would be difficult to deal with these people using the same methods he uses to deal with the opposition, such as law enforcement.

First of all, at the end of the day, law enforcement, unlike Prigozhin, have to act within the confines of the law. Their weapons are criminal cases and courts, not sledgehammers. Secondly, widespread criminal cases against recent allies would hurt Putin himself. And thirdly, a lot of members of the elite have long established ties, including corrupt ones, with security officials. Putin is well aware of this because he comes from a law enforcement background himself and he knows how the system works: someone will always be able to warn [the target of a criminal case], give them time to flee, solve the issue.

People who try to understand Putin’s motives by thinking of him as a state manager are making a logical error. But everything becomes clear if you evaluate his decisions as those of a crime boss. He knows that a lot of people in the gang are unhappy with him, and how can he keep them at bay if not through someone like Prigozhin?

Prigozhin’s next steps

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

Prigozhin’s next steps

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

‘Nobody can touch him’

Source close to the Defense Ministry

Nobody believes Prigozhin is acting independently. Wagner Group is fully dependent on ammunition, logistics, medical supplies, and the entire military infrastructure. Without all that, Prigozhin’s army would become totally unfit for combat. Of course he irritates a lot of people in the Defense Ministry and the FSB, but nobody can touch him. I’ve personally asked very high-ranking military officers why it’s happening this way, and they just shrug: “The top won’t allow it.”

‘Someone will have to control the veterans’

Former Russian intelligence officer

I’m confident that Prigozhin is behaving this way only because Putin allows it. His public, obscenity-laden insults of the defense minister and the military’s command while there’s a war, in front of a broad audience, are unusual enough that they’re only possible in the absence of a harsh reaction from the top. I think Prigozhin is one of the methods Putin uses to deal with the military’s leadership, to keep Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his subordinates in shape.

Prigozhin is also a means of monitoring the situation. In recent months, he’s made a lot of statements that have gained national attention, including the kind of things that previously would only have been said by the opposition, like his comments about the children of the elite and about Shoigu’s relatives. Nobody’s allowed to criticize the progress of the “special military operation” or its officially stated goals except Prigozhin. Just look at the reaction Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman of the [State Duma’s] CIS committee, received when he doubted the effectiveness of the “special military operation” in a statement that was 100 times more innocuous [than many of Prigozhin’s statements].

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My guess is that Prigozhin is being primed to fill the vacuum left by the death of LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. When combat veterans start returning from the front — a very complicated segment of society and a very powerful force — there needs to be someone personally loyal to Putin who can lead them. None of the existing establishment politicians will be up to the task, because for people who’ve been to war, those politicians and deputies simply don’t exist. Whereas Prigozhin is familiar to all of them. He could potentially control this force. In the worst-case scenario, if demonstrative beatings, repressions, and executions of the elites become necessary, Putin can make Prigozhin the head of the oprichnina.

‘He’s more about money than about politics’

Businessman close to Putin’s inner circle

To think that Putin is only thinking about manipulation is a big oversimplification. There’s an inner circle of people who are absolutely loyal to him and who are already bound to him by blood. Prigozhin is one of them. People from this circle can afford a lot more than everyone else, including any wayward thoughts. This is, first of all, because the president has no doubt about their personal loyalty, and, secondly, because nobody can touch them: they have the significant resource of personal access to the president, and in Prigozhin’s case, armed force as well.

At the same time, it’s fairly difficult for the people close to Putin to eliminate one another. Defense Minister Shoigu can’t do anything about Prigozhin, and Prigozhin can’t do anything about Shoigu. That’s why Prigozhin has brought the discussion, and his criticisms, into the public sphere. But Prigozhin has no need for politics as such. He’s more about money than about politics. And not just because politicians are worth so little in Russia. For Prigozhin, the preferable model is not to personally engage in politics but to sponsor somebody he could manage from behind the scenes, controlling everything. That’s a much more comfortable and profitable position in Russia.

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