What’s eating Yevgeny Prigozhin?
In recent days, the boss of the Russian private military company Wagner seems to have gone into social-media meltdown, flooding his Telegram channel and other accounts with ever-more outrageous and provocative statements.
Among other things, Prigozhin revealed an apparently humiliating battlefield setback for Russia, fulminating this week that a Russian brigade had “fled” around eastern city of Bakhmut, threatening his troops with encirclement by the Ukrainian forces.
“The situation on the western flanks is developing according to the worst of the predicted scenarios,” Prigozhin complained in an audio message released Thursday. “Those territories that were liberated with the blood and lives of our comrades … are abandoned today almost without any fight by those who are supposed to hold our flanks.”
Earlier in the week, Prigozhin marred Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations with public and profanity-laced criticisms of the country’s top military brass.
Today they [Ukrainians] are tearing up the flanks in the Artemovsk [Bakhmut] direction, regrouping at Zaporizhzhia. And a counteroffensive is about to begin,” he said Tuesday. “Victory Day is the victory of our grandfathers. We haven’t earned that victory one millimeter.”
And then there was a more cryptic comment that raised eyebrows on social media. Continuing a longstanding public complaint that Russia’s uniformed military was starving his troops of shells, Prigozhin suggested that the higher-ups were dithering while Wagner fighters died.
“The shells are lying in warehouses, they are resting there,” he said. “Why are the shells lying in the warehouses? There are people who fight, and there are people who have learned once in their lives that there must be a reserve, and they save, save, save those reserves. … No one knows what for. Instead of spending a shell to kill the enemy, they kill our soldiers. And happy grandfather thinks this is okay.”
That begged the question: Whom, exactly, is Prigozhin referring to? After all, “grandfather in the bunker” is one of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s favorite monikers for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who inhabits an almost cartoonishly extreme security bubble.
So what, exactly, was Prigozhin driving at? Is he flirting with defenestration? Or is he simply at the end of his tether, after spending months on the front lines?
Prigozhin quickly backpedalled on his “grandfather” comment, recording a subsequent voice memo clarifying that he might be referring to the former Defense Minister Deputy Mikhail Mizintsev or Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov (or, more bizarrely, pro-war blogger Nataliya Khim).
“I spoke about a ‘grandpa’ in the context of the fact that we are not given shells which are kept in warehouses, and who can be a grandpa?” Prigozhin said in a Telegram voice memo. “Option number one, Mizintsev, who was fired for giving us shells and therefore now he cannot give shells. The second is the General Chief of Staff, Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, who is supposed to provide shells, but we do not receive enough shells, and we receive only 10%.”
A bit of context is in order here. For months, the boss of the Wagner private military company has seen his political star rise in Russia as his fighters seemed to be the only ones capable of delivering tangible battlefield progress in the grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. And he has used his social-media clout to lobby for what he wants, including those sought-after ammunition supplies.
But amid those successes — particularly in the meatgrinder of Bakhmut — Prigozhin has revived and amplified a feud with Russia’s military leadership. A canny political entrepreneur, Prigozhin has cast himself as a competent, ruthless patriot — in contrast with Russia’s inept military establishment.
It may seem surprising in a country where criticizing the military can potentially cost a person a spell in prison that Prigozhin gets away with strident criticism of Putin’s generals. But Putin presides over what is often described as a court system, where infighting and competition among elites is in fact encouraged to produce results, as long as the “vertical of power” remains loyal to and answers to the head of state.
But Prigozhin’s online tantrums to be crossing the line to open disloyalty, some observers say.
In a recent Twitter thread, the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said, “If the Kremlin does not respond to Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin it may further erode the norm in Putin’s system in which individual actors can jockey for position and influence (and drop in and out of Putin’s favor) but cannot directly criticize Putin.”
Speculation then centers on whether Prigozhin is politically expendable, whether his outbursts are a sort of clever deception operation — or, more troublingly for Putin, whether the system of loyalty that keeps the Kremlin running smoothly is starting to break down.
“This isn’t meant to happen in Putin’s system,” said Cold War historian and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Sergey Radchenko in a recent Twitter thread. “Putin’s system allows for minions to attack each other but never undermine the vertical. Prigozhin is crossing this line. Either Putin responds and Prigozhin is toast or — if this doesn’t happen — a signal will be sent right through. A signal that the boss has been fatally weakened. And this is a system that does not respect weakness.”
That theory will be tested in the coming days, as the battles continue to rage around Bakhmut.