Icarus in the Kremlin: The Fading Political Power of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group

Yevgeny Prigozhin posing with Wagner fighters in a salt mine in Soledar, Ukraine in January 2023. Image Source: Kyiv Independent

A group of Wagner fighters huddled around their patron, bundled in combat fatigues and balaclavas amidst a backdrop of chalk-colored rock. Russian state media reposted the image with glee, accompanied by an audio message from a man whose stock has risen dramatically since February 24th, 2022: 

“Wagner units have taken control of the whole territory of Soledar.”

Amid some of the most ferocious fighting that Europe has seen since World War II, particularly concentrated around the city of Bakhmut, the announcement – and eventual confirmation by the Ukrainian government – of the capture of the salt mining town of Soledar seemed to mark a crescendo for Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. His announcement via Telegram was telling. Wagner units, not the Russian military, had laid at Putin’s feet Russia’s first victory in months, albeit one of limited strategic significance. It not only appeared to lend further credence to the prowess of Wagner as a fighting force, but also not so subtly implied that the Ministry of Defense played no part in recent territorial gains. What has followed is a series of events that show that the same factors fueling Prigozhin’s meteoric rise in the Kremlin appear to be contributing to an effort to curb his lofty ambitions. Although it is highly unlikely the former hotdog salesman will be removed from the picture, evidence points to one thing: as useful of a cog in the Kremlin’s machine as he is, Prigozhin’s ambitions have their limits, and he appears to have reached them.

The latter half of 2022 saw Prigozhin’s influence explode into the forefront. When military objectives around Bakhmut and Soledar were not achieved by Russian forces, Putin turned to the Wagner Group for a solution. It’s a dynamic that has existed for years between the two men– regardless of the situation at hand, Prigozhin has always been available to offer Putin aggressive solutions backed by plausible deniability. Consequently, it was not surprising that Russia’s leader turned once again to Prigozhin to conjure up an elusive victory in the Donbas, thus beginning an obsessive siege on Bakhmut and its surrounding area. Despite his efforts to offer plausible deniability to Russia’s foreign policy in the past, the role of the Wagner group in the Russo-Ukrainian war is undoubtedly his most valuable asset.

Such is the reputation and adulation of the Wagner Group that a glistening headquarters was opened in St. Petersburg in September called “PMC Wagner Centre.” It looked more like a trendy tech firm than the new home for a group committing war crimes abroad. Prigozhin-produced films and TV series are gracing Russian screens, depicting Wagner fighters as Rambo-esque patriots fighting evil in Mozambique, Syria, and the Donbas. The same month, Prigozhin fully embraced his role with Wagner, publicly admitting his ownership as a number of videos emerged online of him speaking to prisoners at several Russian penitentiaries, marking the onset of a mass recruitment push for new Wagner members. Ever since that moment, Prigozhin has not only stepped into the limelight, but basked in it. His Telegram accounts have been a never-ending source of content ranging from the bizarre to the brazen, which provide a front-row seat to the way in which Prigozhin views his power. Within the span of several months, he released a video of himself in the cockpit of a SU-24 bomber – supposedly in a combat sortie in the skies above Bakhmut – where he challenged President Zelenskyy to a dogfight; placed formal requests to the FSB and the Prosecutor General to investigate his longtime rival, the governor of St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Beglov; and publicly endorsed the gruesome execution of a Wagner fighter who returned in a prisoner exchange. He even endorsed an expletive-laden video of Wagner personnel begging for artillery munitions near Bakhmut, in which Commander General Valery Gerasimov was cursed at for his apparent inactivity. With the apparent free rein provided by the Kremlin to capture Bakhmut at all costs, Prigozhin’s “carte blanche” has prompted the Russian tycoon to increase his political power – while constantly displaying his full loyalty to Putin – and launch constant attacks on his enemies. 

How then, with such an unusual degree of freedom in the military sphere, is Prigozhin’s power and influence fading as rapidly as it came? In short, his personality – brutish, thuggish, dangerous, vulgar, and threatening – has made him a blessing and a curse to Russia’s political and military elite. While the utility provided by Wagner to Putin over the years has not been in doubt, the blatant posturing that Prigozhin has adopted in recent months poses a clear threat to his rivals. Unsurprisingly, as the months wear on and progress around Bakhmut has slowed to an attritional state, the upper echelons of Russia’s military and defense have made their moves on Prigozhin. General Sergey Surovikin, once praised by Prigozhin as the “most able commander in the Russian army,” was demoted from his position as the overall battlefield commander of Russian troops in Ukraine in favor of Commander General Valery Gerasimov. While Surovikin’s productive relationship with Prigozhin was by no means the primary reason for his removal, leadership in the Ministry of Defense and the Russian security services would no doubt have been pleased with Gerasimov’s appointment. For months, Gerasimov and his colleague Aleksandr Lapin – then the commanding officer of Russia’s largest military district –were subject to intense criticism from Prigozhin for “incompetency.” Now, with Gerasimov once again leading Russian forces in Ukraine, and Surovikin demoted to a secondary role, the military establishment has commenced its own salvo against Prigozhin. Within weeks of Gerasimov’s appointment, the Telegram account of one of Prigozhin’s companies – which he often uses to make statements and launch attacks on his rivals – puzzlingly announced that Wagner would no longer be recruiting from prisons. Not long after that, Prigozhin launched a scathing critique of his Ministry of Defense counterparts in which he accused them of purposely denying Wagner ammunition

The effects of these developments will likely be devastating for Wagner in the near future. The group’s engagement in the Donbas region, marked by a noticeable shift from quality to quantity in its personnel to counterbalance its staggering losses, could drop off dramatically. A shortage in fighters could compel Prigozhin to look for new recruits elsewhere, primarily in African countries where Wagner has maintained a presence. Alternatively, the Ministry of Defense may begin phasing out Wagner from frontline operations in favor of conventional Russian military forces, as seen in and around the town of Vuhledar. Regardless of which scenario takes place, Prigozhin and Wagner have been deprioritized. Even in a best-case scenario where Wagner captures Bakhmut as well as Soledar, taking a tactically insignificant town, which has been razed to the ground, would not satisfy Putin’s desire for the entirety of the Donbas region. Years of a carefully-cultivated image of Wagner as a shadowy, elite force have given way to a paramilitary group of convicts whose ownership and government links are visible for all to see, amid ammunition shortages and mind-boggling casualties. In the current political climate in the Kremlin, political success is becoming equated with battlefield success for Prigozhin, and he has clearly not accomplished it. With manpower and ammunition shortages looming and a Russian political and military leadership curbing Prigozhin’s influence on and off the battlefield, Wagner’s tactical and operational capacities are rapidly diminishing. 

There are two types of elites in Putin’s Russia, those of value and those of use. Prigozhin – and frankly many in the West – have mistakenly believed he is the former, to the extent that some media outlets have breathlessly posited that he covets Shoigu’s or even Putin’s positions. Within the first six months of the war, Russia very quickly suffered from manpower shortages, and at the risk of severe political backlash from mobilizing reservists or deploying conscripts, Putin turned to Prigozhin, not because of any value, but because of the utility that Wagner had provided to operations in Syria. Given the success they experienced in combat and the obvious gap they would fill, it was only natural that Putin sought out the PMC once more. Prigozhin’s error, as his stock appeared to soar in Russian political circles, was that he took his temporary elevation for granted, using it to advance his own political agenda. He is not nor has he never been close to Putin, or a member of his “inner circle” as some may believe. He is a man who has no allies, only an ever-growing list of enemies; juxtaposed to the array of contacts within Shoigu or Gerasimov’s mass network, this was always going to be a losing battle for Prigozhin: “There is a Darwinian process at work: no one rises in Putin’s system without being ruthless, opportunistic, and, in their own very specific terms, effective.” Unless he is able to efficiently reinvent himself, Prigozhin – and by consequence Wagner – will soon be ground to nothing.

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