Comment: The rise and fall of Yevgeny Prigozhin has revealed a stark picture of how President Vladimir Putin dominates and manipulates Russia’s domestic and foreign politics.
There is little doubt that the personal relationship with Putin was Prigozhin’s essential career booster. All accounts of how Prigozhin built up his catering business from a hot-dog stand to principal caterer for the Kremlin give credit to Putin’s mentoring, reflected in the oft-quoted sobriquet ‘Putin’s chef’. There is no public evidence of any special excellence of Prigozhin’s food enterprise, or of any process of competitive tendering won by Prigozhin.
Prigozhin’s rise, and later demise, reveals the personalistic nature of power relations at the top level of the Putin-era Russian system. Some have likened Russia to a mafia state with Putin as the capo or godfather. Others compare it to the absolute monarchies of past centuries, not only in Tsarist Russia but in the England of monarchs like Henry VIII, before the reforms beginning in 1689. This stands in contrast to the institutionalised and bounded nature of power relations in the modern democratic West, reflecting the principle of ‘the rule of laws not men’.
Putin secures his leadership by encouraging multiple sources of power then, as arbiter, limiting their threat to his primacy by setting one against another. Thus, the regular armed forces are not only commanded by Putin loyalists such as generals Gerasimov and Shoigu, cronies of questionable military competency, but also divided by function, faction, and region. Putin has also set up alternative armed formations such as the National Guard (Rosgvardia), provincial militia in occupied Ukraine, and most visibly, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group (PMC Wagner).
The civilian and military intelligence agencies (FSB and GRU), the state-controlled media, the United Russia Party, and even the patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, are also elements in Putin’s constellation of power, orbiting around the president. If one of them, such as Prigozhin and his Wagner Group, or charismatic reformers such as Alexei Navalny, or a disaffected oligarch such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, challenges the prevailing Kremlin narrative and attracts a following, Putin can rally his loyal lieutenants to discredit, censor, exile, imprison, or murder the challenging leader, and intimidate, undermine, suppress and disperse the offending group or movement.
Likewise, Prigozhin’s leap from privileged caterer to Wagner Group mercenary army commander could have been achieved only with Putin’s approval … and material patronage, as Putin himself revealed in July. The armed but unbadged ‘little green men’ that fomented separatism in Crimea in 2014, and helped Bashar Al Assad cling to power in Syria in 2015, were among Wagner’s early successes. Then in 2016, Prigozhin organised a ‘troll farm’ in St Petersburg that allegedly hacked Hilary Clinton’s emails and sowed disinformation to promote Donald Trump’s electoral victory. And following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner fighters, now equipped with heavy weapons, proved to be more effective in combat than the regular army, and were essential in the capture of Bakhmut for Russia.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group diversified geographically, selling its security services to dictators and aspiring dictators in Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Mali. Negotiations to support the Niger military coup leaders are now underway. Wagner has become a valuable arm of Russian foreign policy, useful to undermine the influence of France, Britain, the United States and the United Nations, plus the initiatives of African democrats and reformers in at least 13 of the continent’s 54 states.
Sponsorship of Wagner is an example of Russia’s ‘grey zone’ or ‘hybrid warfare’ strategy: to challenge and undermine the prevailing international order without provoking outright war with the West. The overt Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 appeared to be a departure from the hybrid formula, but in the Global South the strategy is still evident in Russian propaganda, cyber-hacking, and opportunistic encouragement of violence against authorities by local movements struggling against alleged Western neo-colonialism.
Since Wagner provides armed security not only to dictators but to resource exploitation enterprises, Wagner’s operatives are in a position to skim off gold, diamonds, minerals, oil, timber, and protection money, making the group partly self-sustaining. And by armed intimidation and corrupt deals they can assist Russian resource exploitation companies to replace Western multinationals.
Until now, Putin could direct Wagner’s initiatives at one remove, giving him flexibility, plausible deniability, and clean hands in both domestic politics and foreign policy. Prigozhin’s June rebellion disrupted but did not destroy this arm of Putin’s authority. Wagner’s leader, and several sympathetic generals, have been eliminated, and many of their fighters have been persuaded to join the regular army.
The rump Wagner units, under new commanders appointed by Putin, will continue to make predatory deals with African tyrants, where they pose no threat to Putin’s regime at home and can advance Russia’s influence abroad. Ministry of Defence efforts to create a rival mercenary force, Redoubt, will take time to establish itself in Africa, and will face a shortage of trained fighters given the demands of the war in Ukraine. So Wagner, restructured and rebranded, will survive to serve the interests of Putin and the Russian state for the foreseeable future.
The Prigozhin affair has strengthened Putin’s grip on power by exposing critics to his retaliation and by deflecting the Wagner challenge away from Moscow, back to Africa. Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, and Putin’s war aims and tactics, remain essentially unchanged.