Coming just a day before the world’s media became submerged in the tragic aftermath of the explosion of the Kakhovka dam in Russian-controlled Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s latest invective against the Russian army on 5 June slipped under the radar. It was his most explosive yet.
Dressed in a khaki sweatshirt and trousers, in the middle of a forest in a Wagner training camp, Prigozhin, the commander of an army of contract fighters known as the Wagner group, accuses the Russian army of lying about events in the Belgorod region – where anti-Putin Russian partisans have been conducting cross-border raids from Ukraine since late May – and warns of the risk of civil war. He calls for the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu to be put on trial for facilitating “the genocide of the Russian population” by being totally unprepared for the war in Ukraine, and more than once suggests that Shoigu and other senior military command should be shot. Prigozhin also claims that inhabitants of the Belgorod region have been writing to him, suggesting a Chile-type solution. “Chile means Pinochet,” explains Prigozhin. “… The Russian elite in a stadium surrounded by armed men with machine guns.”
Prigozhin even plays the nuclear card, initially saying that it would be counterproductive to use it now and that “the button should have been pressed earlier … even though it would have been the act of a fucked-up psychopath”. Later in the interview he suggests that Russians would be capable of using a nuclear weapon on their own territory. This comes with the comforting caveat that he’s unsure how well nuclear weapons would work if they are as badly maintained as the rest of Russia’s weaponry.
Thе hour-long interview follows Prigozhin’s tour of Russian cities during which he spoke of the need to open a “second front”, in the information sphere, to tell the population the truth about what is happening on the front lines and recommended the creation of a territorial army specifically to protect Russia. Even though he denies having any political ambitions, all these elements together look very much like a politician preparing either for an electoral campaign or an armed coup.
The question remains whether Prigozhin is controlled by the Kremlin, or is a loose cannon posing a serious threat to the regime. Since in Russia nothing is ever as it seems, this either/or question is probably far too simple. Some things however seem clearer than others.
Prigozhin would not be able to travel around Russia holding court without support and protection at the highest level. Moreover, as he vilifies what he calls the corrupt elites and calls with impunity for them to be executed, Russia’s most famous anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, is rotting away in a penal colony and faces a potential 30-year prison sentence. Those with protection in the right places can say what they want.
After taking Bakhmut, Prigozhin decided to withdraw his forces, leaving the regular Russian army to hold the city. Was he allowed to do this in the knowledge that Russia’s grip on Bakhmut was threatened by the Ukrainian armed forces who have regained control of parts of the surrounding countryside? If in the coming weeks the Russians lose the city, the regular army will be blamed, and Prigozhin’s Bakhmut victory will be intact. Again, this points to patronage at the highest level allowing him to save face.
By suggesting the creation of a territorial defence and opening what he calls his second Wagner front domestically, Prigozhin appears to be positioning himself to play a mix of policing, security and information/propaganda roles inside Russia. This is vastly different from being a proxy foreign policy tool and private army operating abroad, particularly considering that Wagner, like most other private military companies (apart from those created to protect critical infrastructure), is still officially illegal. Without high-up support it seems hard to imagine how long this ambition will go unchallenged.
Another thing that is becoming clearer is intra-Russian chaos and animosity, if not outright armed conflict. In the last week, Wagner forces detained an officer of the Russian federal army whom they accused of mining their retreat and shooting at them while drunk; anti-Putin Russian partisans captured Russian regular forces and invited the governor of the Belgorod region to negotiate their freedom; and a high-ranking Chechen fighter openly criticised Yevgeny Prigozhin, highlighting the rivalry between the Chechen forces and Wagner. Without counting the mounting jealousies between the growing number of Russian private armies, the above describes at least four factions of armed Russians (including one fighting on the Ukrainian side) in conflict with each other.
If one accepts that Prigozhin is protected by the Kremlin, to what extent does the Kremlin actually mean Putin? So far Prigozhin has refrained from direct attacks on the president and has even said that he respects him. However, by mocking Russia’s nuclear decision-making and capabilities in his recent harangue, he appears to be undermining the very concept of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. It is hard not to see this as a criticism of Putin who is the ultimate arbiter of nuclear use. Double, triple bluff?
Prigozhin’s latest rant looks more and more like the tip of an iceberg that betrays growing fractures inside Russia’s top power structure. In a country that cannot even defend a small sliver of its border from incursions and allows drones to hit the centre of power, it is difficult to imagine a master in the Kremlin who has the absolute control, foresight and planning capacity necessary to manage all this chaos and pull Prigozhin’s puppet strings.
In February 2022, two days before the invasion of Ukraine, senior members of Russia’s security council cowered in submission before a seemingly omnipotent Putin. As the war grinds on, these same men may be the ones planning to take control from a president who seems increasingly divorced from the realities of the front line. They will need a scapegoat for the disastrous “special military operation”. With his frequent diatribes against the regular army, Prigozhin is handing them the heads of the Russian armed forces on a plate. Perhaps he is also promising to be their front man and guarantor of immunity as he helps navigate the chaos to come. Whether or not this includes Putin is anyone’s guess.