Can Yevgeny Prigozhin, Owner of the Wagner Group, become a threat to Putin?

Before founding a paramilitary company, Yevgeny Prigozhin gained notoriety in the gastronomic sector. Because of his role in the war in Ukraine, he began to openly criticize Russian military personnel – something that only Putin would be allowed to do.

(DW) The head of the Russian private paramilitary organization Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin became one of the most prominent figures in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Due to his harsh and unprecedented criticism of the Russian military command, Prigozhin has come 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 ruthlessness and brutal tactics on the battlefield. It has also demonstrated its violence outside the front in videos of alleged executions of defecting mercenaries.

A video posted recently on the messaging app Telegram showed a former prisoner and Wagner Group fighter, who identified himself as Dmitry Yakushchenko, apparently being beaten to death with a sledgehammer.

But two days later, Prigozhin appeared before military bloggers and Russian state media with the alleged “executed fighter,” referring to him as “a good guy, who brought a lot of important information from Ukrainian captivity.”

Last year, the Wagner Group adopted the sledgehammer as its symbol, after allegedly using it to execute a defector from its ranks.

“The flaunting of cruelty is part of what Prigozhin offers. Whatever it is – a staged play, ‘trolling’ or immersive performance – it is all but part of an advertising campaign that promotes the cult of violence,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace foreign policy observatory in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Gourmet beginnings

Prigozhin was born in 1961 in the former Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. When he was in his 20s, he reportedly spent nine years in a Soviet prison for theft and fraud. Release from jail and the fall of the Soviet Union allowed Prigozhin to pursue the path of entrepreneur.

He started with hot dog carts in his hometown and then moved on to larger projects, such as a luxury restaurant in St. Petersburg-which became a hub for Russian elites, including then Deputy Mayor Vladimir Putin.

By benefiting from close ties with political elites Prigozhin expanded the business even further after Putin became president. His catering service called Concord, founded in the 1990s, received exclusive and lucrative government contracts for state dinners, including Putin’s inauguration ceremony and a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to St. Petersburg. The contracts earned Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s cook.”

However, Prigozhin did not limit his ambitions to the gastronomic sector.

Election interference and military “dark services” for Russia

Prigozhin admitted in mid-February that he was behind the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory network. According to the FBI, the agency launched an extensive disinformation campaign to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin and his lawyers vehemently deny the charges and even sued journalists who wrote about his connection to Russian troll factories.

In 2014, Prigozhin created the private paramilitary company Wagner Group. As with the troll factories, he long denied any involvement with the mercenaries until September 2022, when he admitted to forming the unit.

According to independent Russian analyst Alexandra Prokopenko, Prigozhin’s mercenary group was providing “shady services” to Putin. “He is making life easier for his boss and his inner circle in regions where they did not want to get involved publicly and officially,” she points out.

Prokopenko cites as an example the Wagner Group’s actions in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, as well as in Africa and Syria, “where the mercenaries not only participated in combat actions, but also did the security of some oil installations.”

Wagner Group against the Russian Army

Wagner Group mercenaries first became involved in Ukraine in 2014, when they helped Russian-backed separatists illegally annex the Crimean Peninsula. After the Russian invasion in February 2022, the ability of Wagner Group fighters to make progress in bloody battles in eastern Ukraine became a major military asset for the Kremlin.

In January, the Wagner Group claimed to have taken control of the Ukrainian town of Soledar, seen as one of Moscow’s rare victories since the start of the war. The group’s efficiency and its growing 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 incompetence and personally attacked Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian General Valery Gerasimov, who is responsible for modernizing the Army. In one of his latest criticisms, he blamed the Russian military bureaucracy for the unsuccessful attempts to take Bakhmut, whose battle was for months at the center of the conflict with major Russian and Ukrainian casualties.

“Bakhmut would have been taken before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy and the obstacles it creates on a daily basis,” Prigozhin told Russian state media.

According to Kolesnikov, only Putin has the power to criticize military officers in Russia’s autocratic system. “Putin needs Prigozhin to keep the military generals on their toes. Putin balances the ‘weights’ of the various figures by pitting them against each other and keeps an eye on them so that none of these figures is overly strengthened,” he adds.

Despite Prigozhin’s rebuke of the military, the Russian president promoted Gerasimov in early January, making him overall commander of the war in Ukraine. The move, analysts argued, showed the limited importance of Prigozhin’s rhetoric on Putin’s decisions.

Headache for everyone in the Kremlin

Prigozhin, who previously shied away from the media spotlight, has become the face of the war, and his growing publicity has given rise to speculation about possible political ambitions. According to the independent Russian website Meduza, Prigozhin was reportedly 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 an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Prigozhin’s political ambitions could damage his relations with the Kremlin. “The overseers of domestic politics do not like his political demagoguery, his attacks on institutions, or his attempts to ‘troll’ Putin’s team by threatening to form a political party, which would be a headache for everyone in the Kremlin.”

The Kremlin’s desire to tighten Prigozhin’s reins can be seen in the move to prevent conscription convicts who, according to the U.S. National Security Council, account for 80 percent of Wagner’s troops. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that after the reduction, the Wagner Group would have a more limited role in Russia’s war effort.

For Kolesnikov, the only possible path for Prigozhin is to become a politician, given the responsibilities he has been given in the war, however, this is not Putin’s wish. “As long as Putin is able to subtly control the political forces, he can remove Prigozhin from the game at the right time and put him back in his usual place – in underground politics.”

*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI Team ***

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