By Mikhail Zygar
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, it seems, has finally noticed that the war in Ukraine created a dangerous competitor to his power: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company, the Wagner group, whose troops fight alongside the Russian Army.
Depending on your point of view, Mr. Prigozhin could be considered either the person of the year or the villain of the year. Mr. Putin is, according to many sources in Moscow, confident that he can weaken Mr. Prigozhin, who has clashed with the military’s general staff. However, the effect could be the opposite, with more people seeing Mr. Prigozhin as the most probable favorite to succeed Mr. Putin.
From the very beginning of the war against Ukraine, Mr. Putin made sure that rivals to his power could not emerge and took great pains to ensure that the conflict does not create a popular military leader who could pose a threat. It worked. In the summer of 2022, for instance, the ambitious Gen. Alexander Lapin was the recipient of a small online public relations campaign glorifying him. This immediately cost him his job — and a brief but powerful media war against him was launched by Mr. Prigozhin, who controls a series of online troll factories.
According to my sources close to the Russian administration, Mr. Putin then perceived Mr. Prigozhin solely as a counterweight to the generals. The Russian president saw Mr. Prigozhin as his man, an obedient tool and easy to use.
Yet in recent years, Mr. Prigozhin has made a very unexpected career. At first, he was known as Putin’s chef, who managed to become a state contractor of school lunches for Russian children all across the country. Then he created the troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, and he was singled out in Robert Mueller’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election. Finally, Mr. Prigozhin became famous as the founder of the Wagner group, whose contractors fought in Africa, Syria and now Ukraine.
Those achievements alone guaranteed Mr. Prigozhin responsibility for Mr. Putin’s most delicate assignments. But this year, Mr. Prigozhin moved into another league, surpassing all of Mr. Putin’s other friends in power. These include Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; the Russian Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev; the C.E.O. of Russia’s state-owned defense giant, Rostec, Sergei Chemezov; and Mr. Putin’s closest friend, Yury Kovalchuk. Mr. Prigozhin bypassed all of them and appears to be the most important player in Russia. He is both the most popular political operator and the one who is feared by Russian high officials and businessmen.
Mr. Prigozhin’s meteoric political rise began this summer when he started touring Russian prisons and recruiting prisoners for his private Wagner army, offering pardons to those who fight on the front lines in Ukraine: six months of service and then freedom.
To do this, Mr. Prigozhin had to take on several key Russian security agencies at once: the Federal Penitentiary Service, a state within a state in Russia, the F.S.B., the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee. All of those groups have a special status, they report only to President Putin, and no one dares to argue with them. But then the situation changed — a joker appeared, who can beat all the aces at the same time. If Mr. Prigozhin can free any prisoner, his powers are unlimited.
The next sign of Mr. Prigozhin’s new status was his open confrontation with the Ministry of Defense and the military’s general staff.
Mr. Prigozhin managed to create for himself the image of the most effective warrior. He is not subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, he is not included in the system of military bureaucracy, and he determines his own tasks, goals and time frames. According to my sources, Mr. Putin was fine with this arrangement. And he allowed Mr. Prigozhin to rudely and publicly criticize other generals. Mr. Putin has a low opinion of them, so he didn’t scold the Wagner founder.
Last fall,Yegeny Nuzhin , a former Russian prisoner who defected to Ukraine after being recruited by the Wagner group and ended up back in Russia after a prisoner swap, was killed with a sledgehammer. A video of this massacre emerged in November and was most likely intended as a warning to all future deserters.
Surprisingly, this barbarity has a lot of fans. Stores in Russia began to sell “Wagner Sledgehammers,” as well as souvenirs and car stickers with Wagner symbols. Mr. Prigozhin, who put out a state ment supporting Mr. Nuzhin’s killing, became somewhat of a folk hero.
The most radical politicians and businessmen have been drawn to Mr. Prigozhin. Those I speak with tell me that the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously had a direct line to Mr. Putin, now reports to Mr. Prigozhin. The businessman Konstantin Malofeev, owner of the ultraconservative channel Tsargrad TV, who supported Russia’s attack on Donbas in 2014, as well as the ideologist of modern Russian ultraconservative, the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, also praised Mr. Prigozhin. In addition, his group of influence includes the leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics. In general, this is the most influential clan in modern Russia, since it is those who are at the front who carry the most weight in the eyes of Mr. Putin.
But Mr. Prigozhin already seems like a completely independent political player. He started fighting against the governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, a longtime associate of Mr. Putin. “People like Mr. Beglov will be crushed by our society like bugs, sooner or later,” he recently wrote.
By the end of 2022, many Moscow businessmen and officials strongly believed that Mr. Prigozhin was a real threat. “The sledgehammer is a message to all of us,” one oligarch told me. For several months last year questions swirled about why Mr. Putin would not put Mr. Prigozhin in his place, as he did to so many others.
On Jan. 10, Mr. Prigozhin reported on his company’s Telegram channel that Wagner militants had taken the Ukrainian city of Soledar. This was his most powerful propaganda victory and convincing proof that Wagner is one of the most combat-ready Russian units. My sources in Moscow say some high-ranking officials started discussing — supposedly half-jokingly — if it was the right time to swear allegiance to Mr. Prigozhin before it was too late.
The Ministry of Defense claimed that the seizure of Soledar was their achievement, which was immediately denied by Mr. Prigozhin and numerous military correspondents. For propagandists, such an insignificant victory caused absolute rapture. Here is one of the characteristic comments : “Wagner PMC stormed the Russian city of Soledar and killed all the occupants. Not exchanged, namely killed. Like mad dogs. Therefore, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is a real Russian politician. He says what the good Russian people want to hear and does what they expect from their army.”
It was presumably at this moment that Mr. Putin realized that Mr. Prigozhin might be a bit too popular. So he elevated Mr. Prigozhin’s main enemies, Generals Lapin and Valery Gerasimov, and appointed General Gerasimov as commander of the operation in Ukraine. This is Mr. Putin’s traditional bureaucratic game, which has been effective but may not work this time.
Many Russians, zombified by propaganda, are frustrated that the army is not winning. Kyiv was not taken in a few days as promised. By appointing General Gerasimov supreme commander, Mr. Putin assumes responsibility for all subsequent defeats. And it doesn’t weaken Mr. Prigozhin, who did not criticize this appointment.
This means that, in the near future, Mr. Prigozhin may challenge the president, and Mr. Putin may no longer be able to oppose his former chef.