As Russia’s ruling elite one-by-one fall down stairs or out windows, another star is rising. Now speculation is mounting that “Putin’s Chef” is preparing to step out of the kitchen.
He started out with a catering business.
He quickly became part of President Vladimir Putin’s inner sanctum.
He’s now behind Russia’s cyber warriors and a host of online trolls.
And he has his own mercenary army.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming increasingly bold. He’s spruiking his Wagner Group mercenaries as Russia’s most effective fighting force. He’s waging a verbal war against key Putin appointees. He’s winning public support among extremists who believe their aging president is failing them.
That’s why some warn he may end up being “worse than Putin”.
But among Putin’s kleptocratic (government of thieves) circle of power, he’s rapidly emerging as the 70-year-old’s most likely successor. Or usurper.
And now he’s openly attacking the Kremlin’s military leaders for their failing war efforts.
“There will be a lot of political turmoil after Putin. Anyone will be able to take part,” Russian opposition figure Lyubov Sobol told Foreign Policy.
“But having the resources of a well-known name, media outlets, and followers is useful.”
Throwing stones in glass houses
Prigozhin is passing the buck for the failure of his guns-for-hire to take the strategically insignificant Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. And that’s despite Putin gifting his private army with Russia’s most modern tanks, missiles, and attack aircraft.
An expletive-laden video from frustrated Wagner mercenaries has exploded through Russian social media. It shows troops cursing – by name – Putin’s appointed Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.
They blame him for poor tactical decisions, a lack of ammunition, and inadequate equipment.
That’s despite not being part of his chain of command.
But Gerasimov would likely be among the contenders if Putin was no longer president. That makes him a target.
And that may be why Prigozhin was so eager to go on the public record to confirm the controversial video was authentic and to amplify their complaints.
“The guys asked me to pass along that when you’re sitting in a warm office, it’s hard to hear about the problems on the front line, but when you’re dragging the dead bodies of your friends every day and seeing them for the last time – then supplies are very much needed,” Prigozhin told Russian state-controlled media.
But he did not stop with such an embarrassing admission of the Kremlin’s frontline failures.
He issued a threat.
“As for the problems that are unfortunately surfacing at every step… we will force them to be solved.”
Could Russian President Vladimir Putin’s replacement be even worse?
Jostling for power
“(Putin’s) circle of advisers narrowed,” CIA chief Bill Burns said in April.
“And in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s influence.”
But as more and more of Putin’s old cronies fall by the wayside, Prigozhin appears to be consolidating his influence.
“He is looking for his place in this new reality that has come into existence after (the war began) and that has brought him into conflict with many powerful people,” Exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Radio Free Europe.
He’s ideally placed to find it.
“The people around Putin protect themselves,” sacked Russian human-rights council member Ekaterina Vinokurova told the Wall Street Journal.
“They have this deep belief that they shouldn’t upset the president.”
But Prigozhin appears above this.
Putin’s old guard and Prigozhin’s ultranationalists are increasingly at odds. And they’re not afraid to make it public.
Putin, if anything, is rewarding Prigozhin for this boldness.
In the meantime, the president is “probably concerned” at the ongoing muted support he has received from the oligarchs he put in power during his 22-year reign, notes the US-based think-tank the Institute for the Study of War.
It cites a Christmas Day interview where Putin criticized “people who act solely in their self-interest”. He insisted that 99.9 percent of his Russians “are ready to sacrifice everything for the Motherland”. But the remaining one percent “didn’t act like true patriots”.
This, says the ISW, suggests Putin “is focused on those who do not fully support the war rather than on those who do.”
And that puts Prigozhin in an ideal position.
Besides his catering business, Prigozhin is also behind the Internet Research Agency – an internet troll farm that became infamous for its attempts to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election. That gives him a powerful propaganda tool at home and abroad.
But his control of the Wagner Mercenary Group may give him the edge in any future power struggle.
This force is loyal to him. Not Putin. Nor Russia’s halls of parliament.
According to the official Kremlin line, Wagner does not exist.
It’s illegal for Russian citizens to run private military groups.
But it appears that some are more equal under the law than others.
Wagner’s boldly signed head office occupies a prominent piece of Moscow real estate. And its ownership, nature, and existence are a matter of daily public and political discourse.
Its mercenaries have long given President Putin an air of “plausible deniability” in international conflicts.
It fought in eastern Ukraine after the 2014 invasion of Crimea under the guise of local insurrectionists. It has been supporting Kremlin interests in Syria and Libya. It has been accused of smuggling diamonds out of Africa. And it’s implicated in the disappearance of three Russian journalists investigating his behavior in the Central African Republic.
But the mercenaries have now largely been recalled to support Putin’s failing efforts in Ukraine. And they’re not doing all that well, either.
“He is absolutely not an idiot,” Korotkov said.
“He understands that a conclusion is drawing close in Bakhmut to one degree or another.”
A victory would naturally be touted as a personal win. But Prigozhin’s already positioned himself to use a defeat as a weapon against his political enemies.