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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Prigozhin Will Be So Hard To Eliminate

Head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has launched an apparent all-out insurrection against the Russian military. His gambit seems a long shot to succeed, but behind his audacity and aggressive rhetoric Prigozhin has acquired a powerful mix of audacity, money and media visibility that will not be easy to vanquish, says Russian political scientist Ekaterina Shulman

Stylized image of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group

Metzel Mikhail/Worldcrunch
Ekaterina Shulman

This article was updated on June 24, 2023 at 11:40 a.m.


After months of threats and high-stakes rhetoric, Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has crossed the Kremlin's red line. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush what appears to be an all-out insurrection led by Prigozhin, whose troops have seized control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine, in a stunning act of bravado that risks escalating into civil war.

"Excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason," Putin said in a televised address, calling the mutiny a "stab in the back."

The latest news, which includes Prigozhin's directly criticizing the rationale for the war in Ukraine, comes after a series of confrontations with the Kremlin and Russia's military establishment. He had said earlier this month that the Ministry of Defense has twice tried to destroy Wagner; and refused a government push to have Wagner fighters sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense.

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A week before the latest events, independent Russian news site Vazhnyye Istorii spoke with political scientist Ekaterina Shulman about Prigozhin's strategy, strengths and weaknesses.

Safer if in the spotlight

Vazhnyye Istorii: What is the purpose behind the media attention caused by Prigozhin?

Ekaterina Shulman: The first thing that comes to mind is that a man in his position, who not only has no legal status but is a criminal in the eyes of Russian law, is safer the more he is on display. It is harder to kill him if he is in the spotlight.

Secondly, I see a lot of speculation that this is an act staged by the secret service or the presidential administration. There could be various reasons for this: to counterbalance the Ministry of Defense or to present the people with a new Zhirinovsky (a Russian politician known for his hawkish stances who died in April 2022), a person who will attract all of the radicals and make them harmless.

It's more surprising that nothing has happened to him yet.

That was the role of Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party over the decades. The party uttered some incendiary slogans and attracted all of the potentially dangerous political elements to one place, making them less threatening than if they were flying around all over the place.

The defense ministry dislikes Prigozhin, and the list of people who want him gone is very long. A man like him rarely meets a natural demise. We don't know what he did in Africa. We don't know how people remember him in Syria. He has amassed debts and many strained relationships could have developed in the wake of his activities. It's more surprising that nothing has happened to him yet than it will be when something eventually does.

Screen grab of a video showing Prigozhin on the ground in Soledar on May 1

Prigozhin on the ground in Soledar on May 1

Konkord Company Press Service/TASS/ZUMA

Three magic rings

VI: Could it be that Prigozhin is leveraging his image as a battlefield commander to become part of a new elite, whether military or post-war?

ES: What does Prigozhin have? He has an armed force that personally obeys him. His soldiers know that Prigozhin is the only one who stands between them and the law. In the eyes of the law, they are criminals. Therefore, the soldiers will listen to him and obey Prigozhin.

Secondly, he has a business empire in restaurants and the catering industry. He is opening shopping centers and his son is becoming a prominent businessman. In other words, he has a source of money.

Thirdly, he is the owner of his own media empire. It may not be extensive, but it exists and has the right to express itself without facing repression. In general, Russian political management has created a remarkable situation where the only permitted criticism of the authorities can be voiced from a right-wing political perspective.

In other words, one cannot object to the war by stating that war is inherently wrong and criminally punishable. However, objecting to the war by saying that Russia is not waging it intensively enough is acceptable. As it turns out, it is permissible to criticize the president for being insufficiently decisive, weak, old and living in a world of illusions. Criticizing the president as a bloody dictator and aggressor, on the other hand, is not allowed even though, in reality, the latter criticism poses a far greater threat to the preservation of authoritarian power than the former.

These are his three magic rings. Is it possible to make the one-ring-to-rule-them-all?

What he does not have

Now, let’s look at what Prigozhin does not have. He does not have allies.

It is obvious who his public enemies are: the entire Ministry of Defense, the entire General Staff, Beglov, and the broader elite. But who is Prigozhin's friend? His narrative of a lone warrior fighting the deep state and the old elites and voicing the bitter truth may indeed be effective, but it won't build a political career. He has no allies and no legal status, since private military companies do not exist under Russian law.

There is no place for him at the “big boy” table. The Russian political system is a bureaucratically structured one. As long as it functions, it will consist of respectable individuals who hold official positions. Prigozhin not only lacks such a position, but his current status carries a negative connotation.

VI: But there is a long-standing myth that he is "Putin's chef," and that he is close to the president. Yes, he doesn't have an official position as he is not allowed "at the table." Nonetheless, at the same time, he is not driven away, and he constantly performs delicate tasks.

ES: The political scientist Mark Galeotti calls such individuals "ad hoc players." They are not subordinates who you can boss around. They are proactive individuals who come forward and say “I know about your problem, and I will solve it for you.”

I suspect Prigozhin's recent rise was precisely related to this. When our military and political leadership was apparently in disarray, he came to them and said, "Give me the keys to the prisons, and I will gather an army of hell in the name of my lord Lucifer. I will defend you from your enemy."

Photo of \u200bPrigozhin attending an presentation event for the Wagner Group's Second Front youth outreach project

Prigozhin attending an presentation event for the Wagner Group's Second Front youth outreach project

Lev Borodin/TASS/ZUMA

Anti-elite narrative

VI: Can Prigozhin's narrative, which blames the elites for everything, be useful to Putin in the (2024) election?

ES: Can the president go into the elections with an anti-elite program? Though possible, politically it is difficult to imagine, especially given the nature of our leader and his habits. If he antagonizes his surroundings, whom will he rely on? Wagner? Will he invite them to the Kremlin to protect him from the opposition?

I don't think Prigozhin is the right person for this role.

The anti-elite narrative encompasses the president himself. Strelkov has been criticizing Putin for a while and Prigozhin recently joined in. The remarks about a "grandpa" are not so thinly veiled. If we start talking about treacherous elites who are lazy, accustomed to luxury and living off the people's hardships, the president stands out as the foremost figure. He cannot be detached from this discourse.

In general, the anti-elite sentiment sells well when presented as a call for justice. But I don't think Prigozhin is the right person for this role. He is good at initiating the conversation but lacks the ability to leverage the popularity of the anti-elite discourse into political influence. Nevertheless, the approach itself holds promise and might be capitalized on by many.

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Photo of a hand holding a phone displaying an Union Pay logo, with a Mastercard VISA logo in the background of the photo.

Mastercard has just been granted a bank card clearing license in China.

Liu Qianshan


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