Prigozhin v Putin


Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and ruthless mercenary commander fighting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, is accustomed to living dangerously.

He spent nine years in prison before the Soviet Union collapsed, made his early fortune in newly independent Russia’s shadowy gambling business in the 1990s, then colluded with Moscow’s notorious military intelligence brass to found businesses providing online propaganda and election interference services for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political meddling abroad.

As hands-on warlord of the Wagner Group of trained killers, the 61-year-old Prigozhin has driven tens of thousands of his soldiers of fortune to their deaths to score Russia’s first Ukrainian battlefield success since last summer. The Pyrrhic victory of taking the destroyed city of Bakhmut after nine months of bloody attrition has emboldened the bombastic mercenary chief to crow about his forces coming to Putin’s rescue in the stumbling 15-month-old invasion.

Prigozhin’s denunciations of Russian Defense Ministry incompetence and high-level infighting are edging ever closer to personal attacks on Putin. That level of open dissent has led to less prominent critics mysteriously falling to their deaths out of upper-story windows or being poisoned by nerve agents.

The Wagner boss has gone so far as to suggest Russia’s strategic failures in Ukraine could provoke Russians to rise up and overthrow their corrupt government, as happened in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ended centuries of czarist rule.

Putin’s stated goal in launching the invasion in February 2022 was to “denazify” the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv, Prigozhin told a pro-war Russian military blogger last week.

“Nothing is working out for us,” he told Konstantin Dolgov in the videotaped interview published on Wednesday. “The denazification of Ukraine we were talking about has turned Ukraine into a nation that is known everywhere all over the world.”

Prigozhin praised Ukraine’s fighting mettle and success in rallying support from Western powers. That is likely to infuriate Putin, who tolerates no dissent or criticism from the security, intelligence and armed forces he has deployed in a so-far unsuccessful effort to take Ukrainian territory for his envisioned Greater Russia empire.

“In the beginning of the Special Military Operation, let’s say they (Ukraine) had 500 tanks. Now they have 5,000,” Prigozhin said of Kyiv’s David versus Goliath clash. “It turned out to be the opposite — we militarized them to the nth degree.”

The Wagner fighters’ symbolic victory in capturing Bakhmut after at least 20,000 deaths among the mercenaries appears to have emboldened Prigozhin to take on his patron in the Kremlin. When an offensive goes so wrong as the Ukraine invasion has, he warned, there is a need to “change the top leadership.”

For months Prigozhin has been blasting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the latest commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, as incompetent and indifferent to the mounting casualties of Putin’s imperialist gambit. The Wagner boss has called Shoigu, Gerasimov and other senior figures in the Russian armed forces indolent, living “fat, carefree lives” while Russian conscripts die by the hundreds each day.

Prigozhin’s dispute with the Kremlin is not disapproval of Putin’s war, rather what he considers insufficient government support to the troops and private militias fighting a determined Ukrainian defense force.

Prigozhin has effectively used gruesome video taken by his ever-present documentary entourage to enhance his image as the main fighting force in Ukraine. He stood amid a pile of corpses of his fallen fighters in mid-May lamenting the failures of Kremlin leadership. His provocative outburst seemed more frustration with the impediments to an easy victory for superior Russian forces and armaments than a calculated campaign to undermine Putin.

After proclaiming his mercenaries’ success in taking Bakhmut last week, Prigozhin announced he was withdrawing his fighters from the smoldering ruins of the city. That leaves their hard-won control of Bakhmut in the hands of Russian government recruits to hold against a burgeoning Ukrainian counteroffensive.

“We will get rest and get ready,” the Wagner boss said in his latest video. “And then we will receive a new task.”

The Wagner chief’s posture of furloughing his fighters for a little R&R threw down the gauntlet of challenge to Russia’s standing army to defend the ruined city or let the world see that Russia’s invasion is a spent force.

The Washington Post on Sunday quoted Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of Bakhmut as confirming the departure of Wagner fighters and their replacement in the trenches by regular Russian units.

In the last weeks of the Bakhmut battle, Prigozhin’s promotional entourage videotaped his interviews and proclamations in which he accused the Kremlin of withholding ammunition his fighters needed to drive out the last Ukrainian defenders.

The videotaped interview with Dolgov aired Prigozhin’s grievances with the Kremlin’s stalled effort to conquer Ukraine. He accused the Russian government of half-hearted support for its invasion, which the Kremlin still insists on calling a “special military operation,” not a war.

That failure to commit sufficient manpower and equipment has resulted in “turning Ukraine’s army into one of the most powerful in the world” as Western allies have rallied to Ukraine’s defense, Prigozhin told Dolgov.

The Wagner warlord’s biting attacks on the Kremlin stirred speculation and commentary in media and intelligence circles that Prigozhin might have crossed a red line with Putin, especially the prediction of a popular revolt against the Kremlin leader.

Instead, the pro-Kremlin media outlet Telega ONLINE opted to shoot the messenger. Dolgov was fired on Thursday and quoted by Radio Free Europe as saying his dismissal was “linked with the interview.

While Prigozhin’s provocative taunts at the Russian military hierarchy and Putin himself have raised concerns he may be pushing his luck, analysts of the inter-Russian power play see a symbiotic bond between the Kremlin leader and his most effective mercenary ally.

In a lengthy analysis of the Putin and Wagner interdependence, an article in Foreign Affairs last week posited “Why Putin Needs Wagner.” Much as the 70-year-old Kremlin leader abhors dissent and disloyalty, Prigozhin’s fighters have been providing the most effective offensive in Ukraine for many months.

Prigozhin’s challenge to Putin comes as Ukraine is close to launching its much-anticipated counteroffensive to try to take back territory in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, plus the cherished Crimean Peninsula and its commanding defensive venues in the heart of the Black Sea.

Ukrainian defense official have been signaling in recent days that they are ready to put to effective use their newly acquired NATO and U.S. tanks, artillery and other military hardware.

While Prigozhin’s bluster is testing how much tolerance Putin has for criticism of his leadership acumen and military tactics, Russia analysts point out their relationship goes back to the early 1990s when Putin controlled gambling and casino activities in the Wild East aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

Prigozhin’s successful launch of imported grocery stores and gourmet restaurants in the food deserts of Russia in the first post-Soviet years drew lucrative contracts with the Kremlin after Putin replaced retiring President Boris Yeltsin in 2000.

Whether those long and mutually advantageous business ties are enough to protect Prigozhin from Putin’s wrath remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the loudmouth of Russia’s motley forces is being advised to watch his back.



Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. What excellent reporting. Only the finest writer can paint with such vivid hues as:

    “That level of open dissent has led to less prominent critics mysteriously falling to their deaths out of upper-story windows or being poisoned by nerve agents.”

    And always, I think, “if it’s difficult to read, if the sadness stays with you, imagine living through this.”

  2. Prygozhin’s relatively safe. Not because he’s prominent, but because he’s needed. The end game is interesting, though. Will Putin come to his senses, write up an acceptable end with Ukraine, and then hunt Prygozhin down? Not likely – Putin will have to be taken down. Will Prygozhin be involved? He doesn’t seem like much of a statesman, not likely a Putin successor per se.


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