The Russian Warlord who is commanding the Wagner mercenary squad known for its extreme brutality, Yevgeny Prigozhin has been making headlines across Russian and world media. He has criticized the Russian state’s ability to protect the country and warned Putin not to trust his top generals on Ukraine, creating a major rift between regular Russian army and his fighters, most of whom are former convicts. Prigozhin recently has hinted about his intention to become a contender in the Russian 2024 presidential election.
But can this former hotdog salesman and convicted criminal really become the next president and commander-in-chief of the world’s largest nuclear power? My assessment is that it is a possibility.
On February 1st, Russia’s state news agency, Interfax, carried a piece titled “Yevgeny Prigozhin, for the first time, joined the list of top ten media personalities, based on January polls.” The article stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin remained the top person mentioned in the Russian media, having received “218,374 links” in the Russian press. It also claimed that Prigozhin “entered” the top ten list, having received 22,524 links. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, held the second place, followed by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov who was third. President Biden was fourth. While several other top personalities in Putin’s regime remained on the list, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dropped off the top 10.
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As a famous Russian saying goes, “It is not a coincidence, Comrade,” that Prigozhin, who was called up to fight in Ukraine, has replaced Shoigu, whom the Wagner chief viciously criticized for mishandling the war. The Russian media is almost entirely controlled directly or indirectly by the Russian state. So the Interfax report is simply highlighting the inevitable outcome of the Russian media coverage, packaging it as news. Only articles that are in line with the Russian state’s party line get published in the Russian press. Therefore, Prigozhin’s emergence on the top 10 list is, by definition, approved by the Kremlin.
On March 14, Prigozhin gave an interview to the leading Russian media outlets Russia Today, RIA Novosti and his own Federal News Agency (RIAFAN). It was published on the RIAFAN website, where Prigozhin revealed the hidden cause of “ammunition famine.”
Prigozhin blasted the Russian military establishment, whom he sarcastically called “the founding fathers,” accusing the bureaucracy of deliberately withholding munitions from his forces. Prigozhin contrasted himself and his fighters, who come from very rough and criminal backgrounds but have direct experience on the battlefield, with the “useless” bureaucrats in the Russian defense structure who “shuffle papers” and interfere with war.
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“I make my way to the fighter, and I can communicate with him … I like all that, it is risk and it is good when you control the situation.” He touted his lack of fear of war and of being killed. “At the end of the day, we all are walking under God.” He claimed that the lives of generals and ordinary soldiers are equal. “How is the life of a army general worth more than the life of a fighter? What is the difference? A fighter also has a mother, children. Is his life trash and the army general’s life isn’t? Is it that he [general] has more thoughts in his head? Maybe the fighter has twice as many thoughts than the general?” Prigozhin praised his fighters as “first-rate lads” and rejected the idea that they should be looked at only as “meat” for the meatgrinder.
Prigozhin suggested that he is suited for the role of a wartime commander much more than a uniformed bureaucrat from the military establishment does. He bragged about applying the same fast decision-making and problem-solving practices that “any business structure” does, touting his vast business experience. Prigozhin also implied that his lack of fear of war is due to his criminal background. Born in 1961, Prigozhin committed his first crime, theft, at 18, and two-years later he was sentenced to 13 years in a high-security prison camp for fraud, theft and robbery. “It’s important for people to understand that war is serious work.” Using profanity, he accused the establishment commanders of being engaged in “child’s play” instead of war.
The interview looked and sounded a lot like a campaign speech by Prigozhin. It was orchestrated in a style that was eerily similar to Putin’s. Like Vladimir, Yevgeniy, who goes by Zhenya, presented himself as the defender of the common folk who are being cheated by the bureaucracy. Prigozhin invoked Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, who masterminded a violent coup in 1917. “Remember when grandfather Lenin . . . We all thought that everyone should live well, but they made it so, that everyone is living equally bad.” At one point, Prigozhin parroted Putin’s line about “communicating with people.” A trained KGB operative whose job was to recruit spies, Putin famously called himself a “specialist in human relations” in his autobiography, “First Person.” “People come to me, and we communicate,” Prigozhin shared with the Russian journalists.
The setting also mimicked Putin’s style. Like Putin, Prigozhin sat at a mahogany wood desk, across from his interlocutors, in his St. Petersburg business office. Dressed in a white collared shirt and navy blue full-zip sweater, instead of the camouflage uniform that he wears in combat zone, he spoke forcefully, sitting against the background of a world map. Prigozhin claimed that he is involved in the war, not because he has “big political ambitions and needs PR” but because Russia needs to “prove to the entire world that Russians can,” which means that they are capable of doing things. He urged everyone to understand that Russia again “must launch Gagarin into space,” referring to the first human, a Soviet citizen, who traveled into space in 1961.
Without the Russian government’s consent, RIA Novosti and Russia Today, which is Putin’s pet media project whose primary mission is to favorably predispose audiences to the Kremlin’s agenda, would have never given this platform to Prigozhin.
Although Putin publicly denies friendship with Prigozhin, their relationship spans at least two decades. The two have a lot in common, having grown up in very tough conditions in St. Petersburg, becoming troubled youths. And Prigozhin has earned Putin’s trust. Putin, who trusts almost no one, has allowed Prigozhin to serve him food and drink, as the latter owns a massive catering business that serves the Kremlin. In a country that has elevated poisonings of the regime’s opponents to a form of statecraft, letting a former convict serve you meals reveals the highest level of trust.
The next Russian presidential elections are scheduled for March 17, 2024. While the 70-year-old Putin will likely run again, it is also possible that he may be contemplating a transition of power. If Putin does select Prigozhin as his replacement, the 2024 election will be simply staged to make this outcome a reality in the same way that Boris Yeltsin relinquished the presidency to Putin in 2000. Depending on how things with Russia unfold in next 10 months, Prigozhin could either be dead, serve as the scapegoat for Russia’s future failures in Ukraine, or become the next occupier of the Kremlin.
The war is turning into an endless battle of attrition between Ukrainian and Russian forces, and the West’s economic warfare on Russia will almost certainly press on, leaving no room for improvement of U.S.-Russia relations. It therefore would be consistent with Putin’s mindset and character to anoint someone who is viewed as even more ruthless than Vlad himself, as Russia’s commander-in-chief. The practice of using fear as the main motivational tool is a standard playbook of many Russian and Soviet leaders, including Putin. And Putin would only be delighted if the West, which has for years wished for his demise, could get an even more brutal Russian gangster to deal with.
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