September 30 2022
Monday, September the 26th. A declaration rings like a small revolution in the small world of PMC Wagner public relations. In an official communique from his society Concord, Evgueny Prigozhin admits to being the creator of the Wagner Group, the infamous private military company known for his operations – and exactions – all around the globe, from the Central African Republic to Ukraine.
For anyone familiar with Wagner, the link between Prigozhin and SMP has been known for years. However, this confession is particularly significant. Indeed, “Putin’s Chef” has done everything until now to deny his involvement. For that purpose, he went as far as suing the investigative media Bellingcat for pointing it out.
This sudden turnaround is surprising, and its finality questionable given that PMCs are still illegal in Russia and that the Kremlin regularly denies its use of Wagner. However, warning signs could already be detected in recent weeks.
Stealing the spotlight
Although known for his influence with Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin remained until recently a shadowy figure. Holding no official government position, he has so far strongly denied any geopolitical activity despite accusations linking him to Wagner and the Saint Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.
Yet this summer, observers noticed a noticeable change in posture. On August 23, Prigozhin made a notable appearance at the funeral of Daria Dugina, a symbol of Russian nationalism and daughter of the far-right ideologue Alexander Dugin. Significant detail, he displayed the medal of Hero of Russia, which was awarded to him in the first months of the invasion of Ukraine.
It has been clear since late spring that Prigozhin plays a leading role in the so-called “Special Military Operation”. He was seen in the Donbas on several occasions. Officially, this could be justified by the role of his company Concord Catering as the main food provider for the Russian army. Unofficially, there is little doubt that his appearances in the separatist republics were aimed at supervising Wagner’s activities.
This became even more obvious in early September, when he appeared on videos shared on social networks. He is seen in Russian prisons giving speeches to prison inmates, urging them to sign up for 6-month contracts in Ukraine in exchange for a amnesty. The very fact that Prigozhin had the possibility to conduct such action despite having no official role in the military proves his level of political influence.
Unexpected figurehead of the Special Military Operation
In the small world of Russian milbloggers, a very active microcosm on Telegram, Prigozhin became at the same time a figurehead of the Russian invasion. Some commentators went so far as to call for the eminence grise to replace Defense Minister Sergei Choigu. The reason? Russian operations have been bogged down for months, the regular army is everywhere on the defensive or even retreating from the Ukraine, and the Wagner group is the only unit to obtain some significant results, such as the capture of Popasna and, more recently, the laborious advance towards Bakhmut.
A number of these commentators display a more or less clear link with Wagner. Wagner thus occupies a prominent place in the unofficial Russian info sphere. And discussions on these channels are in stark contrast with the discourse of the Kremlin. Pessimism about the conduct of operations is widespread, and in its wake criticism of military authorities.
Far from Ukraine, in Africa, Russia is also increasingly subcontracting its diplomacy to the Wagner group. The Central African Republic and Mali, two countries plagued by insurgency, recently rejected their historical partnership with France to get closer to the Kremlin. But it is not the regular army that Russia deployed there, sending instead the Wagner Group. Therefore, the private company, is taking precedence over the official actors of Russian public action, often interfering in the affairs of these states. States which, in spite of all evidence, deny their links with the SMP.
It is appears that, both on the ground and in the informational area, the Wagner group, and thus Prigozhin, is acquiring a significant political weight. In this context, Prigozhin’s admission makes much more sense. From a position of strength, the oligarch seek to assert his political power. He can count on a weakened Putin in dire need of allies to mitigate the negative effects of his war on his position.
A risky bet ?
So is Prigozhin, after years of maneuvering in the shadows, about to occupy the front of the Russian political scene? That remains to be seen. The oligarch indeed skillfully built up his game over time. His coming in the clear also directly benefits the Kremlin. While branding itself as “private”, the Wagner Group operations are led from Moscow, with an assessed support from the GRU. Anything related to the group is somehow tied with Putin. And exposing Prigozhin might indeed deflect some blames regarding the Special Military Operation from the Kremlin to a private citizen. Accusation of war crimes might for instance be blamed on mercenaries rather that regular soldiers.
However, exposing oneself is tantamount to making a lot of enemies. A risky bet for Putin’s chef. Putin himself might well end up worrying about this potentially cumbersome ally. It should be remembered that Wagner has only recently returned to grace in Moscow, as a result of the military operation in Ukraine. We ought to keep in mind that at the beginning of the year, distrust toward the PMC was growing. Wagner was allowing itself a little too much freedom, especially in the conduct of its African affairs. It is obvious that, if Putin absolutely needs the Wagner group today in Ukraine, this mistrust will not dissipate. On the contrary!
A country that relies to much on private mercenary companies to support its political ambitions puts itself in de facto danger. A private company has its own interests, which do not always align with the interests of the State. If tensions come to rise between the two, an overly powerful armed group will naturally seek to abuse its power.
Caution is therefore required regarding Prigozhin’s repositioning. Especially since the Wagner success story may fade soon enough. Suffering strong attrition in Ukraine, its insistence on advancing towards Bakhmut while the Russian army is struggling around Lyman is difficult to understand from a tactical point of view, and could be a sign of lack of coordination with the regular army. This might prove fatal in the framework of complex military operations. In addition, Wagner is in trouble with jihadist groups in Mali, and the SMP’s overreach is causing increasingly visible tensions with local partners. In the medium term, Wagner could therefore unwittingly undermine Russian interests. This would greatly call into question its usefulness to the Kremlin, and therefore its existence.