Let the history books show that on the 485th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the country’s next civil war may have been put into motion—by a foul-mouthed hotdog-seller-turned-warlord who once had Vladimir Putin’s ear.
Russia’s usual delusional boasts about battlefield successes on Friday were suddenly eclipsed by its two rival armies going to war—against each other. Military vehicles rolled out in Moscow and checkpoints were set up on a highway leading from the country’s border with Ukraine to the capital, though the security measures weren’t meant to protect against Ukraine. Instead, they were apparently meant to hold back a convoy of angry, armed Russian mercenaries arriving to settle a score with military officials they accuse of treason.
An emergency late-night broadcast on state-controlled television called out the man said to be responsible for the brewing mutiny: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the same mercenary boss Putin had tasked with bringing him a win in Ukraine just months earlier.
“Do not carry out the criminal, traitorous orders” given by Prigozhin, the Channel One host told viewers, relaying a message from the security services for Wagner fighters to detain their boss and hand him over to authorities. Just a few hours earlier, Prigozhin had called on all “patriots” to join him and “25,000” of his men in ousting “evil” from the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said Putin had been briefed on his one-time pal suddenly being wanted for trying to stage an armed uprising.
After news broke that he was a wanted man, Prigozhin scoffed at attempts to detain him, saying in a furious audio message: “If someone gets in the way, we will destroy everything that gets in the way. We reach out a hand to everyone, no need to spit in that hand. We are going all the way.”
In another, he declared that he was on his way to Moscow, bellowing: “We’re all ready to die, all 25,000! And then there will be another 25,000!”
For those watching the chaos unfold, all bets were off. Did Prigozhin, a longtime Kremlin ally, simply lose his mind? Could the whole conflict have been staged as a pretext to introduce martial law and a full wave of mobilization? Or is Russia truly on the brink of civil war?
And how long before Prigozhin “accidentally” falls from a window?
Even veteran Russia experts admit there’s no way to answer these questions, and Prigozhin’s motives seem increasingly unclear. But the back story only makes the current standoff more unpredictable.
From Kremlin Caterer to Troll to Mercenary Boss
Prigozhin may be known worldwide now for storming front and center in the war against Ukraine with the Wagner Group, a private military force linked to Russian military intelligence. He gained more notoriety with his prison-recruitment scheme, which set free thousands of Russian inmates to go kill Ukrainians.
But it’s important to remember he’s also an excellent shit-stirrer. Before he became the public face of Russia’s infamous mercenaries, he founded and financed the so-called “troll factory” that churned out heaps of disinformation, propaganda, and bogus “news” articles. He was sanctioned by the U.S. over that “information warfare” effort in 2018 and charged with interfering in the presidential election.
Even now, after stepping out from the shadows and demanding credit for doing the Kremlin’s dirty work, Prigozhin controls a vast network of trolls and media publications, many of which he has clearly used to target foes in the Russian Defense Ministry and increasingly portray himself as an anti-elitist crusader determined to fight for the rights of the little guy. (It would appear he’s come a long way from where he started out, selling hot dogs and then launching a catering business that would enjoy several contracts with the Kremlin).
Political analysts have speculated that the once-camera-shy businessman may be laying the groundwork for a political campaign, but Prigozhin has consistently denied that. Though he does appear to have considerable popular support: Fliers have been spotted in areas near the border with Ukraine in recent weeks lauding Prigozhin for having the “courage” that others in the Russian government do not.
Another theory for his increasingly public role is that he realizes the more support he has, the harder it will be for the Kremlin to get rid of him when he’s no longer needed.
“As long as he’s on a stage, it’s harder to kill him… By attracting maximum attention, he’s increasing the expensiveness of his murder,” political analyst Yekaterina Shulman told iStories last week.
Is Prigozhin Acting on Behalf of Putin?
The Wagner founder has long boasted of his close ties with the Russian president, and he even used that in his recruiting pitch to prison inmates for the war, reportedly telling them last July: “I have special authority from the president, I don’t give a fuck, I need to win this damn war at any cost.”
Nearly a year later, it’s abundantly clear that the man once dubbed “Putin’s Chef” may have flown too close to the sun. The general consensus among experts is that the Kremlin allowed Prigozhin to do as he pleased as long as he was useful to the president. Less plausible, perhaps, is the possibility Prigozhin was used to keep in line the hardline, nationalist groups who have long pushed for more brutal tactics in the war.
Whatever the case, it seems clear he has finally overstayed his welcome. Even before he became the subject of a federal manhunt on Friday, there were signs the Kremlin was growing increasingly exasperated: Wagner was sidelined from prison recruitment, and Putin has demonstrated he is sticking with the Defense Ministry even as the Wagner boss angrily rails against it.
The charges against Prigozhin announced Friday night appear to be the surest sign yet that the Kremlin is ready to throw him overboard. And they seem to be hoping the Wagner boss will soon be a distant memory–all social media posts by Prigozhin were blocked within Russia late Friday as prosecutors ordered him scrubbed from the Russian internet.
Is He a Walking Dead Man?
The jury’s out on whether Prigozhin may “accidentally” fall out a window soon in what would likely be described as a drunken accident or suicide. Tellingly, there were no statements of support issued Friday by any establishment politicians, and the same state-run media outlets that had previously published gushing profiles of the Wagner Group went all in on portraying Prigozhin as enemy No. 1.
The Kremlin has also previously (perhaps preemptively) laid out plausible deniability in case Prigozhin is killed. Asked in January about the possibility of Ukrainian spooks taking out the Wagner boss, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was quite likely.
“As for assassination attempts, Ukraine is involved in both assassination attempts and an absolutely monstrous murder… The involvement of the Kyiv regime in such assassination attempts is obvious, so there is such a danger to our citizens,” Peskov said at the time.
With the criminal charges against him, there is also the chance Prigozhin could be sent to wither away in prison like many of Putin’s staunchest foes (i.e. Alexei Navalny). He might even find himself at home there, having served prison time himself for assaulting a woman when he was 18, according to records from St. Petersburg’s Primorsky District Court (then known as the Zhdanovsky District Court of Leningrad).
And he could always avail himself of the prison-recruitment scheme he made famous.