Saturday, 24 June 2023 00:10

The public feud between Prigozhin and Russian military brass just got very real

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin escalated his feud with Russian military leaders Friday.

The increasingly public feud between Russian military leaders and the head of a Russian paramilitary group escalated dramatically on Friday, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the paramilitary Wagner Group, accused Russian armed forces of attacking his soldiers and vowed retaliation. It was a shocking accusation, one with unpredictable consequences for Prigozhin, Russia, and the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The evil that the military leadership of the country brings forward must be stopped. They have forgotten the word ‘justice,’ and we will return it,” Prigozhin said in a recording published Friday on Wagner’s social media, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Russian Ministry of Defense denied Prigozhin’s allegations that the military had launched a strike on Wagner fighters, calling it a “provocation.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said late Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “aware” of Prigozhin’s claims, and that the Kremlin was taking “all necessary measures.”

Shortly after, Russian law enforcement said that in response to Prigozhin’s statements, Russia’s security services, the FSB, have launched a criminal case over calls for an armed uprising. “We demand to stop these unlawful actions at once.”

Russia’s deputy head of military intelligence went as far as to call it a “coup” attempt in a video urging Wagner fighters to stand down. Russia’s prosecutor general also announced that Prigozhin was now being investigated “on suspicion of organizing an armed rebellion,” reports the New York Times. Prigozhin himself, for what it’s worth, denied he was carrying out a coup, calling it a “march of justice.”

Videos and images posted to social media late Friday showed Russian security forces patrolling the streets of Moscow and another Russian city, reportedly close to where Wagner troops are deployed in Ukraine.

Prigozhin, whose Wagner forces helped take the city of Bakhmut, has been increasingly vocal in his attacks against the Russian military’s leaders, posting more and more scathing criticism of the top brass over the war effort and accusing generals of denying Wagner the ammunition and support needed to fight effectively.

Prigozhin has generally avoided direct criticism of Putin himself, but earlier on Friday he had posted a video on Telegram with a stunning assessment of Russia’s war effort. In it, he attacked the Russian military’s — and, by extension, Putin’s — rationale for the war, basically saying the threat of NATO aggression through Ukraine was made up by Russia’s top brass and corrupt elites. The war, Prigozhin said, was “needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are.” He included a diatribe against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who Prigozhin claimed pushed for war to secure a promotion, and whose decisions led to the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers.

Prigozhin has taken a very public — and very risky — part in the war in Ukraine, and he may have finally crossed a line that he has been butting up against for many weeks. Yet this story is very much still developing, and both the Russian government and Prigozhin have an interest in pushing their own propaganda at this moment.

Prigozhin is a Putin ally and a political survivor, but those often have limits in Putin’s Russia. Still, whatever is unfolding is yet another crack in Russia’s war machine, and a window into some of the dysfunction of the Russian state — dysfunction, in part, of Putin’s own making.

Who is this Prigozhin character, and what does he want?

Prigozhin, the man at the center of this, is an unlikely, and imperfect, challenger of Russia’s war effort.

Known as “Putin’s chef,” he has been something of a fixer for Putin’s regime. He isn’t exactly in Putin’s inner circle but has the skills and connections to make himself useful and needed. This may be setting up a troll farm to sow political discord abroad, including in the 2016 US elections, or acting as the frontman for Wagner, a private mercenary-like force to do the Kremlin’s bidding. In both cases, Prigozhin fulfilled the interests of the Russian state, but with just enough distance to offer Putin a measure of plausible deniability.

Prigozhin has claimed to be the founder of the Wagner Group, but the reality is likely much more complicated. He is more likely the convenient figurehead of the group, which Russia has relied on for years to do its bidding around the world in places where it did not want to openly commit troops or resources, and where it could operate in a kind of gray zone. That again granted Moscow a degree of plausible deniability as it exerted its influence and interests in other corners of the globe, from Syria to Mali to Venezuela. It also gave Putin a kind of independent power center, a paramilitary outside of the formal military structures.

That all started changing in Ukraine, where Wagner, and Prigozhin himself, took on an increasingly public role in the war.

Wagner filled a specific operational and public relations need for Russia. The group’s fighters — a portion of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons — bogged down and attrited Ukrainian forces at a time Russia’s military was in disarray. The group achieved its most substantial victory in Bakhmut, one of Russia’s main territorial gains since last summer. But that victory took months, and came at an astounding casualty rate.

But as the battle for Bakhmut ground on, Prigozhin got more and more outspoken about what he saw as the failures of the Russian military and its leaders. In one video Prigozhin posted in May, he stands in a field, apparently surrounded by corpses of dead Wagner fighters. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are the fucking shells!” Prigozhin says, referring to the minister of defense and the military’s chief of the general staff. “They came here as volunteers and died so you could gorge yourselves in your offices.”

These kinds of critiques are frankly shocking for a guy who is largely dependent on Putin’s largesse; in a country where open criticism of the government, and especially the war, is often brutally crushed; and within a military apparatus where insubordination of this magnitude is rarely tolerated.

Some have interpreted Prigozhin’s braggadocio as an oligarch feeling himself, and seizing on the incompetence of the Russian military to create his own power center — maybe even playing the long game to challenge Putin.

But even before Prigozhin escalated his rivalry with the Russian military this week, experts I’ve spoken to really doubted Prigozhin was actually a Putin rival and could build his own power center in the Russian state. Instead, then, it made sense to look as Prigozhin as a functionary who was seizing an opportunity in an otherwise dicey environment.

There is a place — even within Russia’s controlled media environment — for a convenient foil, a guy to get out front and complain about Russian military incompetence. It focuses and puts pressure on the war’s generals, but not on the war’s mission or its necessity. It is not necessarily a permanent or stable spot to be in, and becomes even more precarious when Prigozhin outruns his usefulness.

Experts told me this spring that the worst thing for Prigozhin is for the Ukraine war to end. “Prigozhin clearly understands that there will be no safe retirement for him,” Sergey Sukhankin, a senior research fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told Vox earlier this year. “He knows that if the current regime, or if his Wagner Group, goes down, he goes down with them.”

There were signs then, as now, that Prigozhin might overstep his ambitions. How that will play out for him — and for Russia right now — is extremely unclear, although the view from where Prigozhin sits looks pretty bleak. If the Russian military is launching attacks against him and his fighters, and if the security services are really investigating him, then any serious challenge to the Russian state or military looks pretty doomed right about now. But the fact that Russia had to rely on Wagner, and Prigozhin, to wage its war helps explain why Russia has struggled militarily since invading Ukraine, and that is unlikely to change, no matter what’s next for Prigozhin.