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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Is The “Traitor” Prigozhin Already Back In Russia?

The post-coup mystery continues with reports that Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin is not, in fact, in Belarus, but in Russia. A look at what it says about Vladimir Putin's hold on power.

image showing Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin attending a presentation event

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin

Lev Borodin/TASS
Pierre Haski


Betrayals aren't what they used to be.

Less than a month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on television talking about a "stab in the back."

We were already imagining the culprit's likely punishment: Novichok, the chemical poison that eliminated former spy Sergei Skripal. Some people advised Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group who had launched an aborted coup attempt against Putin, to let someone else taste his tea before drinking it.

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Now, the Wagner boss, exiled to Belarus after his brief march on Moscow, is already back in Russia. He is reported to be in Saint Petersburg, or possibly even in the capital.

The Russian press reports that he has recovered some of his cash and gold bars; meanwhile, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who helped arrange the peace deal, insists that Putin is a good man who will not ‘eliminate’ Prigozhin.

The affair

So this affair continues to be bizarre — a buffoonery at the heart of the far more dramatic war in Ukraine, an affair that has yet to reveal its secrets about Moscow's power games.

It's mysterious because it's incoherent.

All of these twists and turns are mysterious. From the rebellion of Wagner's men – who stormed through Russia with impunity – to the final episode of Lukashenko's negotiations.

It's mysterious because it's incoherent. How can such a strong state tolerate the defiance of a group of mercenaries? And if the group’s departure to Belarus already seemed surprising, Prigozhin's return to Russia so soon afterwards, so freely, is even more unexpected.

Part of the explanation lies in the long-standing, close relationship between Wagner's boss and the head of the Kremlin. Putin has publicly acknowledged the relationship, laying to rest the fable of Wagner's independence from the Russian state – a lie he had no problem repeating previously, in front of French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow.

Image showing Vladimir Putin looking over a factory's production chain with the factory's director, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In 2010, Putin tours one of Prigozhin's factories

Government of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia

Putin's system

Clearly, Putin has given up on punishing Prigozhin for his insubordination. He's given him free rein to go about his business, which remains highly complex: a tangle of military operations, disinformation and economic affairs in Africa.

The only thing that truly counts, obviously, is allegiance to the leader.

Is Wagner about to be "nationalized"? This was the assumption that prevailed after the June 10 coup, when Putin gave the group's men a choice: join the army, go into exile in Belarus or return home. According to NATO, which is monitoring the situation closely, few men have arrived in Belarus.

Above all, this affair speaks volumes about the nature of Putin's system, which is closer to a mafia-style operation than a modern state, and which tolerates brutal Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, with his effective methods, alongside Prigozhin, who defies the chief and escapes.

The only thing that truly counts, obviously, is allegiance to the leader. Prigozhin, even in his defiance, doesn't seem to have crossed that red line. This no doubt explains the leniency on Putin he enjoys, unlike political prisoners Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, jailed for their opposing views.

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