Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, wanted to overthrow the Russian defense minister – and failed. Is he also a threat to President Vladimir Putin?
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the private mercenary group Wagner, had become a key figure in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. His unprecedentedly harsh criticism of the Russian military leadership has led many to see him as a potential threat to President Vladimir Putin. But is he really as influential as he seems?
On June 24, 2023, Prigozhin ordered his troops to march on Moscow, calling for an armed uprising to overthrow the Russian military leadership. Wagner fighters occupy military installations in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The city is an important command and logistics center for the Russian army and plays a central role in the illegal war against Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin announces severe consequences for Prigozhin’s “betrayal”. Hours later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Prigozhin had agreed to travel to neighboring Belarus.
The country under dictator Alexander Lukashenko supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko is said to have mediated. Charges against Prigozhin for armed rebellion would be dropped, the Kremlin said. The ultimate power struggle has failed.
Who is the Wagner group?
The Wagner Group is notorious for its cruelty and brutality in combat. She has repeatedly underscored her ruthlessness off the battlefield as well: videos show alleged executions of fighters who defected to Ukraine.
The Wagner group made the sledgehammer its symbol after they reportedly used it to execute a defector from their own ranks last year.
“This display of cruelty is part of Prigozhin’s DNA. Whatever it is – a staged play, troll attacks, or an engaging performance – it fosters a cult of violence,” Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
From prison to ‘Putin’s chef’
Born in 1961 in what was then Leningrad – today’s St. Petersburg – Yevgeny Prigozhin is said to have been in a Soviet prison in his twenties, where he served nine years in prison for robbery and fraud. After his dismissal and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin was successful as an entrepreneur.
He started with a small hot dog truck in his hometown and later grew to larger projects, such as a luxury restaurant in St. Petersburg. This restaurant became a meeting place for the Russian elite, and the then Deputy Mayor Vladimir Putin was also a frequent guest.
Prigozhin’s business benefited from close ties to the political elite. It continued to expand after Putin became president. Founded in the 1990s, his catering company Concord has received exclusive and lucrative government contracts for state banquets, including Putin’s inauguration and a visit by US President George W. Bush to St. Petersburg. These orders earned Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s chef”.
meddling in the US elections
However, Prigozhin was not limited to the catering industry. On February 14, 2023, he admitted that he is behind the Internet Research Agency – better known as the network of troll factories. According to the FBI, the agency launched a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to influence the results of the 2016 US presidential election.
Prigozhin and his lawyers had previously vehemently denied the allegations and taken legal action against journalists who wrote about his connection to Russian troll farms.
Finally, in 2014, Prigozhin founded his private military company, the Wagner Group. As with the troll factories, he has long denied any involvement in the company. It was only in September 2022 that he acknowledged having founded the unit.
Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent Russian analyst, told Deutsche Welle that Prigozhin’s mercenary force performed so-called “grey services” for Putin: “He made life easier for his boss and the inner circle in combat zones where the official Russian army was present did not want to show publicly and officially. For example, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. But also in Africa and Syria, where Wagner mercenaries were not only involved in combat operations, but also guarded some oil industry facilities.”
The Wagner group against the Russian army
Wagner mercenaries first became active in Ukraine in 2014. Back then, they helped annex the Crimean peninsula. After Russia invaded all of Ukraine in February 2022, the Wagner Group’s ability to gain territory in fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine became a key military asset for the Kremlin.
In January 2023, the mercenaries claimed control of the Ukrainian city of Soledar. This is considered one of Moscow’s few victories since the beginning of the war.
The Wagner Group has become stronger thanks to its efficiency. This has enabled Prigozhon to launch a campaign against Russia’s top military officials. Again and again he was outraged by the lack of ammunition and accused the military leadership of incompetence.
In a seven-minute audio message on February 20, 2023, Prigozhin accused Russia’s top military commanders of “treason” for allegedly withholding ammunition from his Wagner fighters.
Prigozhin’s nemesis is Defense Minister Shoigu
“I am not in a position to solve this problem, despite all my connections and contacts,” he complained, adding that he had to “apologize and obey” in order to receive ammunition for his troops. The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed Prigozhin’s allegations, saying the statements were “absolutely untrue”. A day later, Prigozhin then published another audio message in which he claimed that what the military were doing was nothing more than “simply spitting at Wagner.”
His nemesis is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He has repeatedly personally attacked him and the Russian General Valeri Gerasimov, who is responsible for modernizing the army. In one of his most recent rants in May 2023, he blamed the Russian military bureaucracy for failed attempts to capture Bakhmut.
The city was at the center of the aggressive war for several months. In Bakhmut both sides, Russia and the Ukraine, suffered heavy losses. The Wagner boss claimed in Russian state media: “Bachmut would have been taken before the turn of the year if it weren’t for our monstrous military bureaucracy.”
“Putin needs Prigozhin to keep the military generals on their toes”
According to Kolesnikov, in Russia’s autocratic system, nobody but President Putin himself is allowed to criticize the military: “Putin needs Prigozhin to keep the military generals on their toes. In this way, Putin balances the ‘weights’ of the different characters, balances them, keeps track of them so that none of those characters become overly powerful.”
Although Prigozhin had repeatedly attacked the military leadership, Russian President Gerasimov was promoted to supreme commander in Ukraine in early January. According to observers, this shows that Prigozhin’s rhetoric has only a very limited impact on Putin’s decisions.
Headache for everyone in the Kremlin
The formerly media-shy Prigozhin had become the face of Russia’s war against Ukraine in the weeks leading up to the rebellion. His increasing notoriety had given rise to speculation about possible political ambitions.
According to the independent Russian website Meduza, Prigozhin planned to create a patriotic and conservative movement that would eventually evolve into a political party, an idea he has publicly denied.