October 1, 2023

He lived by the troll, he dies by the troll’: Putin takes on Prigozhin’s business empire

5 min read

As Wagner mercenaries captured a major Russian military base and began their armed march on Moscow, members of Russia’s federal security services stormed one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s headquarters in St Petersburg.

Masked men quickly seized computers and documents belonging to the Patriot group, a media holding at the heart of Prigozhin’s information empire that for years promoted the warlord at home while sowing chaos and interfering with elections abroad.

“They barged in, smashing the front door. It felt like they were busting a brothel, and not the workplaces of patriotic journalists,” said a senior staffer at Ria Fan, the flagship Patriot online outlet, who was present during the search.

The incident on 24 June, described to the Guardian by several Patriot members, marked the start of the Kremlin’s efforts to clamp down on Prigozhin’s vast business empire, after a mutiny that presented the biggest challenge to Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power.

Over three decades, Prigozhin built one of the world’s most shadowy and complex corporate structures that stretched far beyond his mercenary activities and included companies in media, logistics, mining, film and catering – for which he earned his nickname as Vladimir Putin’s chef.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) showing Putin around his factory outside St Petersburg, which produced school meals, in 2010.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) showing Putin around his factory outside St Petersburg, which produced school meals, in 2010. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

But after Putin accused the warlord of treason, Moscow began to dismantle Prigozhin’s corporate behemoth after allowing it to thrive for so long.

Last week, Putin hinted that the warlord’s finances would be investigated. Speaking in front of his military, Putin said that alongside Wagner, Prigozhin’s catering company Concord received almost $2bn in military contracts between May 2022 and May 2023.

“I hope nobody stole anything, or didn’t steal much, but we’ll sort this out,” Putin added.

The Kremlin has a history of shutting down unruly media outlets, and appeared to target Prigozhin’s communication channels first.

On Friday, the country’s information watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked most media outlets linked to Prigozhin and, soon after, Patriot’s director announced that the media operations would close immediately.

“On 30 June, we were all fired, the editor-in-chief wrote to everyone that Ria Fan was closed,” said Andrey Karpov, a Moscow-based producer at Ria Fan.

“My colleagues are very angry because they are suddenly without a job and don’t know what to do,” Karpov added

Patriot had taken a strongly nationalist, pro-Kremlin editorial line while providing positive coverage of Prigozhin and his Wagner group. Patriot was also used by Prigozhin to attack his longstanding opponents including defence chief Sergei Shoigu and St Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov.

There are signs that the authorities have also started to absorb Prigozhin’s most notorious online outfit, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll factory loosely linked to Patriot group best known for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.

Some of the IRA trolls, controlled by low-paid employees who aim to sow anger and distrust by writing aggressive comments under news and social media posts, appear to have turned against their creator.

“Prigozhin’s Trap”, a monitoring group that tracks internet trolls linked to the mercenary leader, said thousands of accounts on VK, a Russian social media platform, had flooded the site with negative comments about the “treacherous” warlord after previously praising him for a month.

“Prior to May, Prigozhin controlled around 15,000 accounts on VK that praised him, but most of them are now working against him,” a representative of the monitoring group said. “It is clear that the government has taken control over them.”

Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University who has studied Pigozhin’s IRA since 2018, said his research had identified more than 180 IRA-linked trolls active on Twitter who had been critical of Prigozhin after his revolt.

“Once the mutiny kicked off, the activity level of these trolls increased and we saw blistering attacks on Prigozhin,” Linvill said.

A screengrab from an expletive-ridden video in May, in which Prigozhin personally blamed Russia’s top defence chiefs for losses suffered by fighters in Ukraine.
A screengrab from an expletive-ridden video in May, in which Prigozhin personally blamed Russia’s top defence chiefs for losses suffered by fighters in Ukraine. Photograph: AP

According to Linvill, the behaviour of these “inauthentic accounts” suggested that the Kremlin had gained control over at least some of Prigozhin’s former troll farms.

“Prigozhin lived by the troll, and now he dies by the troll,” Linvill added.

Observers have suggested that some of Prigozhin’s international operations in Africa were too useful to Moscow to be dismantled, with the Kremlin likely eager to take control of Prigozhin’s lucrative mining contracts in Central African Republic.

Last week, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, quickly moved to reassure allies in Africa that thousands of Wagner group fighters deployed to the continent would not be withdrawn.

Prigozhin’s fortunes also worsened at home last week.

Days after the failed mutiny, Prigozhin-linked companies started to lose out on school-meal contracts, according to several reports by independent Russian media.

The warlord’s firms for now remain responsible for supplying some of Russia’s vast network of military towns with food and other provisions as well as catering to Moscow’s military bases in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

“One of the biggest challenges for the Russian authorities will be to complete the takeover of Prigozhin’s supply chains without disrupting the work of the military bases,” said Denis Korotkov, an expert on Wagner.

As his empire crumbles, Prigozhin’s whereabouts remain a mystery.

He is supposedly in Belarus under a deal brokered by the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, although he has not been photographed there recently and the warlord’s jet has flown several times back and forth from Belarus to Moscow and St Petersburg.

By the weekend, most reminders of Prigozhin’s existence were erased from his hometown in St Petersburg.

A big Wagner sign was removed from the company headquarters on Saturday as cleaners inside the glass tower were photographed scraping the group’s logo off a large window.

Speaking on the Telegram messaging app on Monday for the second time since leading his aborted rebellion, Prigozhin sounded uncharacteristically downbeat as he thanked supporters inside Russia.

“Today we need your support more than ever,” Prigozhin said, promising new victories at the front “in the near future”.

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