The most significant threat to Vladimir Putin’s leadership emerged last week from an unlikely source – a former criminal, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who thrived under Putin as he became the president’s favoured restaurateur and caterer. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Retreat of Wagner’s Prigozhin leaves Putin looking weak

A middle-aged man dressed in a camo outfit sits in the back of a car with the window down.
Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the city of Rostov-on-Don last week.
Credit: Reuters / Alexander Ermochenko

For 23 years, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has held a firm grip on power, partly due to his willingness to imprison, exile or assassinate any figure who might represent a challenge to his rule.

But the most significant threat to his leadership emerged last week from an unlikely source – a former criminal, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who thrived under Putin as he became the president’s favoured restaurateur and caterer. Moscow later relied on Prigozhin to conduct interference in the 2016 United States presidential election and to run a mercenary force, the Wagner Group, that has operated in Syria and across Africa.

Until the invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin was typically described as “shadowy”. He could be seen in the background at dinners hosted by Putin, serving food to visiting dignitaries such as former US president George W. Bush. He avoided the limelight and denied for years that he was linked to Wagner, even as the group’s global activities expanded.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought Prigozhin out of the shadows. The invasion on February 24, 2022 – in which Russian troops reportedly hoped to seize Kyiv within three days – did not go as planned, and Putin turned to his old chef. In late March last year, as the Russian military faced a shortage of soldiers, the Wagner Group began operating in Ukraine and was soon fighting on the front lines like regular Russian units, bolstering its numbers by enlisting prisoners who were promised pardons if they served for six months.

Prigozhin began appearing in photos and videos, hurrying around Russia to recruit mercenaries or oversee his charges. In a leaked video last September, he made a pitch to prisoners in a crowded jail and warned them of the risk of desertion. “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you,” he said.

As the Russian troops in Ukraine lost territory, the Wagner Group took on ever greater roles, eventually spearheading the capture in May of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut – Russia’s first military victory in almost a year – after one of the bloodiest battles of the war. By the start of this year, Wagner was believed to have 50,000 soldiers in Ukraine. Its losses are unknown, though Prigozhin has claimed more than 20,000 of his mercenaries died in the fight for Bakhmut.

As the Bakhmut battle wore on, Prigozhin started to accuse the top brass in Moscow – particularly defence minister Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov, the long-serving military chief – of withholding ammunition from Wagner and of lying about Russian losses. Prigozhin’s bedraggled appearance, surrounded by corpses or Ukrainian prisoners, contrasted with that of Putin, who makes occasional visits to the front but is typically seen in a suit in Moscow, or with Shoigu, who wears a dazzling array of medals on his uniform despite having no battlefield experience.

In hundreds of messages on the Telegram app, Prigozhin stepped up his foul-mouthed rants about the Russian military leadership’s ineptitude and betrayals. He claimed Russia had mined roads used by Wagner forces and he threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the ... ammunition?... They came here as volunteers and die for you to fatten yourselves in your mahogany offices,” he said in one video.

In Moscow, Shoigu, a close ally of Putin, plotted his revenge. On June 10, he announced “volunteer” forces would be folded into the military – a move that did not name, but appeared to target, Wagner. Putin backed the plan, saying it needed to be completed quickly. A deadline of July 1 was set, signalling the potential end of Wagner’s war in Ukraine.

According to an assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a US think tank, Prigozhin viewed Shoigu’s plan as “an existential threat to his political (and possibly personal) survival”.

“Prigozhin likely gambled that his only avenue to retain Wagner Group as an independent force was to march against the Russian MoD,” the institute said.

And so Prigozhin launched a mutiny. Last Friday, he accused Russia of a missile strike that killed Wagner soldiers. His forces then seized the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, including its military headquarters, and shot down several Russian aircraft, killing at least 13 Russian soldiers. Insisting he was launching a “march for justice” rather than a coup, Prigozhin then ordered his forces to advance towards Moscow.

Putin did not try to quell the insurrection. Instead, with Wagner soldiers about 200 kilometres from the capital, he agreed to a deal brokered by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko that involved dropping mutiny charges against Prigozhin and granting an amnesty to the Wagner fighters. The fate of the estimated 25,000 Wagner personnel – and their tanks, rocket launcher systems and aircraft – remains unclear.

On Tuesday, Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on his private jet. Lukashenko, a Putin ally, claimed he had convinced Putin not to kill the Wagner boss.

“I said to Putin, ‘Yes, we could wipe him out, it wouldn’t be a problem; if it doesn’t work the first time then the second,’ ” he told reporters. “I told him: don’t do this.”

And so Prigozhin remains alive – for now – and his forces were granted an amnesty, despite attacking Russian troops and initiating a rebellion that could have led to civil war. Others in Putin’s Russia have fared far worse, for much less. The unavoidable conclusion is Putin – the seemingly immovable strongman who belittles world leaders and tramples on international norms – has been humiliated. He created Prigozhin but, as the Ukraine quagmire dragged on, could no longer keep his creation in check.

Inside Russia, business figures and politicians have openly questioned Putin’s leadership and viewed the insurrection as a shattering of the myth of the president as a source of strength and stability. For many residents, the prospect of fighting in Moscow – where the mayor had ordered people to stay home during the mutiny – undid the sense that Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine was a contained and remote conflict.

Alexei Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, told the Financial Times this week: “It turns out you can start a revolt against the president, and be forgiven. That means the president isn’t that strong.”

Putin loyalists this week credited him with unifying the nation, and deftly avoiding civil war, but struggled to explain why Prigozhin – described by some as a terrorist – had been allowed to flee to Belarus.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the Wagner rebellion had dealt a blow to Putin and his regime and demonstrated “how fragile the entire ‘construction’ has proven to be”. Putin, she said, will now be more focused on bolstering his security services and crushing dissent, especially among ultra-nationalists.

“Putin doesn’t need Wagner or Prigozhin,” she wrote on Twitter. “He can manage with his own forces. He’s now certainly convinced of that.”

The consequences of this setback for Putin remain hazy. He is a wily president of a country whose politics are notoriously murky and unpredictable.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow-based analyst and Putin critic, told The Washington Post the Kremlin’s claims that the president had unified Russia were “just nonsense” and Putin received little support from the military, police or the public as Prigozhin approached the capital. “The big question is, does it mean anything?” Kagarlitsky said. “Okay, this guy doesn’t have the reputation he used to have. So what? It’s Russia. It’s not the kind of country where reputation matters.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Retreat of Wagner’s Prigozhin leaves Putin looking weak".

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