Prigozhin, Putin, and What Next?

Prigozhin, Putin, and What Next?

Private military companies, war, and the dilemma of the elites.


A Russian friend texted me soon after learning that the head of Wagner private military company (PMC), Yevgeny Prigozhin, had been killed in a private plane crash, midway between Moscow and his native city of St. Petersburg. My friend had just seen the New York Post headline, “Russian dissident Prigozhin reported dead after a plane crash outside Moscow.” My friend, a longtime independent editor whose paper has published—and protected—dissidents, was apoplectic. “Dissident!?” Between May 2022 and May 2023, the Russian government paid $1 billion to Wagner for military and other services (including inflated catering prices for poorly paid soldiers). Indeed, Putin has said, “We fully funded this group.” (At the time this went to press, Prigozhin’s death had still not been officially confirmed.)

If Prigozhin was not already a household name in Russia following the attempted rebellion that The New York Times says exposed him as Putin’s “biggest threat,” he certainly was after his Embraer private jet crashed.

Prigozhin’s Wagner Group operated in several African countries, including the Central African Republic and Sudan, as well as in Syria as of 2015 and in Ukraine since 2014. It captivated governments and media across the globe and made international headlines after having declared a “March on Moscow” to remove what they decried as the incompetent and corrupt Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Following Wagner’s seizure of a regional military command, the downing of seven Russian aircraft on their way to Moscow, and Putin’s determined speech accusing the mutineers of treason and vowing punishment, the rebellion was halted in dramatic fashion. The charges leveled against Prigozhin and his supporters were dropped following a still unclear agreement ostensibly mediated by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Nevertheless, Prigozhin’s ultimately aborted armed rebellion mesmerized Western audiences who had long believed that Putin’s downfall was just around the corner.

The June events followed Wagner’s brutal, yet ultimately successful, tactics in Ukraine–most infamously in the battle of Bakhmut. Although Wagner had initially been seen as subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin increasingly became one of the loudest critics of the Russian invasion from the nationalist right. He demanded more ammunition for his fighters and the intensification of the war effort, and he directly criticized the military leadership–eventually questioning Putin’s justifications for the “special military operation” itself.

During the months-long battle for Bakhmut, commentators had rationalized Prigozhin’s freedom to directly criticize the war’s conduct as due to his being in Russia’s so-called “party of war” camp, which fervently supports the extension of the conflict into a full-scale war. Nevertheless, Prigozhin’s confidence (or desperation) had been visibly increasing in the months prior to the attempted rebellion. He had directly questioned, via his 1,000,000 followers on Telegram, the objectives of the “special military operation,” one of which was to demilitarize Ukraine. Prigozhin remarked how before the full-scale invasion of 2022, Ukraine had “maybe 500 tanks” and “twenty thousand skillful fighters,” but now it had thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of skilled fighters. He went so far as to declare that it was in fact Russia who militarized Ukraine by launching the invasion that caused unprecedented military aid to be delivered by the coalition supporting Kyiv. As Anatol Lieven, of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, points out, Putin initially encouraged Wagner as a “rival force” to the professional army, but this ultimately had “damaging results” for his regime.

Prigozhin pushed for his own preferred military men, Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev and Gen. Sergei Surovikin, to replace Shoigu and Gerasimov, respectively. Of course, such a public feud would not be allowed to persist for long. Initially, however, Putin appeared slow to react. By mid-June, Shoigu, ultimately with the president’s backing, declared that by July 1 all PMCs would be required to sign government contracts, thus losing their independence and falling under the military’s chain of command. Prigozhin, however, remained defiant. The declaration by the defense ministry and Prigozhin’s subsequent resistance has been cited as the likely immediate precipitating cause for the attempted rebellion.

But Prigozhin was no military hero or whistleblower exposing fat and corruption in the Ministry of Defense. His journey began with serving nine years in prison following his time associating with a Leningrad-based (now St. Petersburg) gang of thieves. He only became the influential mercenary chief following his success as a hot dog vender turned restaurateur, which eventually brought him into contact with Putin himself. Hot dogs were replaced by fine dining and the average patron by a world dignitary as President Putin brought foreign leaders as guests to Prigozhin’s swank restaurant on St. Petersburg’s Neva River.

Dr. Kirill Shamiev, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, highlights that Prigozhin “had no military experience” and “has been operating outside the formal system.” To be sure, Prigozhin “appointed some very experienced retired military officers to command his mercenaries,” but he remained more of a “political leader,” according to Shamiev.

For Dr. Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, Prigozhin had puzzling support from somewhere within the Kremlin. For Luzin, there are only two explanations for June’s attempted rebellion. “Either it was a part of political battle inside the Kremlin and Prigozhin was a front man of a major conspiracy,” a possibly dangerous scenario; “or Russia is a failed state,” a truly hazardous prospect. Indeed, prior to the events of late June, the independent Levada Center in Russia had recorded close to 60 percent approval for Prigozhin, with 19 percent of those surveyed earlier even saying they would vote for him as president. However, these numbers dropped dramatically following the attempted rebellion.

Although theoretically prohibited under the Russian Constitution, which declares that all defense, security, and foreign policy matters are under the state’s purview, Russian PMCs have been active since at least the outbreak of violence in Ukraine in 2014. In some ways inspired by the American use of mercenary outfits like the notorious Blackwater (now Academi) which operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, PMCs have offered Moscow the same plausible deniability and the capacity to project limited power while minimizing domestic repercussions due to casualty rates that made them so attractive to the Bush administration. While the Wagner Group remains the most well-known of all Russian PMCs, there have been and continue to be others operating beyond Ukraine.

The US State Department says the “Patriot Group” is supported by Defense Minister Shoigu and has been involved in Ukraine alongside Wagner. The forces of “Redut” were reportedly some of the first to enter Ukraine in last year’s invasion. According to Novaya Gazeta, Redut is backed by Gennady Timochenko, a long-time Putin friend and business tycoon. There is also “Convoy,” created by the Moscow-backed governor of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov and run by a former Wagner supervisor. PMCs have mushroomed across Russia as some of the country’s richest businessmen either create their own private security companies or pay salaries to mercenaries who then fight for the Russian army. Recently, some have suggested this is in order to inspire competition among PMCs, thus lessening the power Wagner has held.

In an apparent effort to counter continuing Ukrainian attacks within internationally recognized Russian territory, federal lawmakers are currently working on giving regional governors the authority to create paramilitary companies with presidential approval during mobilization, wartime, and the imposition of martial law. The consequences of empowering private military groups do not bode well. As Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, notes, “Many thought the Kremlin would seek to reclaim a monopoly on violence after the June uprising, but it looks like the opposite is taking place. Indeed, it could be said that a ‘fragmentation’ of Russia’s security services is underway. Growing fissures in Russia’s security architecture will create new conflicts and intensify interagency competition, with all their destabilizing consequences.”

Fear of such consequences may explain why crackdowns against the “party of war” have increased. The most notable crackdown was the arrest of Igor (Strelkov) Girkin, a former Federal Security Service officer who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in the early years of the conflict in Ukraine. Addressing his 800,000 Telegram subscribers before his arrest, Girkin stated that Russia “won’t survive another six years with this talentless coward in power,” referring to Putin. General Surovikin, who had served as the top commander in Ukraine for several months following Russian military setbacks last autumn, was believed to be an ally of Prigozhin and had urged Wagner fighters to stop. Since then, rumors surrounding Surovikin’s whereabouts and status have been confirmed. He is currently under arrest.

The nationalist far right, once relegated to a vocal but peripheral part of the Russian political continuum, has been invigorated by the war in Ukraine. In a recent interview with Russia Post, Alexander Verkhovsky of the Russia-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis explained that the nationalists not only had “little public support” but also the “unsolvable problem” of how to acquire it. The “special military operation” in Ukraine has given them a chance to present their distinct vision, which includes labeling the operation as a war and mobilizing all the economic, political, and military means necessary to emerge victorious. Nevertheless, Verkhovsky notes that the arrest of Strelkov appears to be “giving the ‘ultra-patriotic camp’ a signal” that the authorities’ “patience is starting to dry up.”

My longtime Russian acquaintance noted, “Prigozhin is now dead, Wagner is now precariously positioned in Belarus, and many understand this is a pause, rather than the end.” Clearly, the ruling elite is faced with a dilemma. “However confident Putin may feel today,” Stanovaya insists, “he created a monster that escaped from his control and spooked the elites.”

Historically, Russian society has prided itself on the role of the military.

Indeed, the military’s fate (whether on the battlefield in Ukraine or in the barracks within Russia) will have direct repercussions for the government in Moscow.

“If the Russian army in Ukraine can hold its present line, then these problems will probably not become disastrous for Putin,” says Lieven. However, “further defeats,” he was quick to warn, “would bring [these problems] fully into the open and threaten [Putin’s] survival in power.”

Furthermore, what happens after the war’s conclusion—however that comes about and whatever the agreement entails—is an open question. The same uncertainties remain equally true for Ukraine. While nationalists’ rallying around the flag in both countries has generally been the result of the conflict thus far, what happens once the artillery stops firing and the parties engage in negotiations may prove more consequential.

I am grateful to Artin DerSimonian of the Quincy Institute for Research Assistance.

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