Yevgeni Prigozhin COLD after Wagner’s leverage in the Ukraine war freezes up

  • The Wagner Group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and a greater influence over Africa have increased Prigozhin’s influence within and outside of the Kremlin.
  • The ongoing war in Ukraine is showing his political ambitions. 
  • Internal divisions between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), and Western sanctions against the Wagner Group are challenging his status.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tours the new factory Concord, which supplies pre-prepared meals to schools
Government of the Russian Federation (CC BY 3.0)

Why is Prigozhin cold?

Answer: The ongoing war in Ukraine, EU and US sanctions and internal divisions within the Russian MoD milden Prigozhin’s influence.

Yevgeni Prigozhin was a convict during the former USSR and after his release, he started a hot dog stand business. This quickly became a small business empire of supermarkets and restaurants. Russian President Putin took a liking to the ambitious young restaurateur and awarded Prigozhin’s catering company lucrative government contracts to feed Russian school kids, prisoners and soldiers. He catered for the Kremlin, allowing him to stay close to Putin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has enjoyed a rapid ascent in Russian society since. The Wagner Group is believed to have been set up by retired colonel Dmitri Utkin and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. This group hit international headlines in 2014, because its forces surreptitiously entered Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to fight Ukraine’s military. Wagner operatives were believed to be among the ‘little green men’ – the incognito Russian forces who conducted the campaign and assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Since then, Wagner’s activities have proliferated across the Middle East and Africa, including in Syria, Libya, Mozambique, the CAR and Mali. For instance, the Central African Republic (CAR) has invited the Wagner Group to guard gold mines in Sudan. As The Wagner group gained a foothold outside of Russia, human rights abuses have been reported. In October 2021, a group of UN experts reported violations against civilians in the CAR by the Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group has been heavily involved in the current war in Ukraine. After Russia’s capture of Soledar, Prigozhin released a video praising his fighters as “probably the most experienced army in the world today”, but Putin attributed this success to his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, making no mention of the Wagner Group. This is important for Russia as it is the first town that Moscow manages to control after its retreat from Kherson and this will help Russian troops encircle the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin accused the Russian Ministry of Defense of attempting to downplay the Wagner Group’s role in the capture of Soledar.  

This internal rift highlights cracks in his relationship with the Russian MoD, while the  EU and US announced sanctions against the Wagner Group, factors which are lowering Prigozhin’s temperature. U.S. sanctions target Wagner’s key infrastructure and Wagner’s associated front companies.

What is changing Prigozhin’s temperature?

Answer: Keeping a close relationship with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin and gaining more leverage is pivotal for him.

Wagner Group’s wins enhance Prigozhin’s status in Russia’s society, allowing him to take on a prominent role in pushing for more aggressive military actions. He even personally voiced his concerns about the war in Ukraine to Vladimir Putin. The October 2022 withdrawal of Russian troops from the strategically important Eastern Ukrainian town of Lyman prompted criticism from Prigozhin. This criticism and his status as a successful paramilitary leader are cooling down his ambitions to keep a close relationship with Putin. 

The relationship between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense began to disintegrate when the businessman began presenting himself as both a military solution for the conflict and a political solution. Thus, he has been questioning the status of the Russian MoD with his own private army. However, he is losing more leverage inside Russia for two reasons.

The Wagner Group is believed to have lost a significant number of fighters in the brutal battle for Bakhmut, reports and data indicate that Prigozhin is facing difficulties finding new recruits. He even admitted that his mercenary group is facing difficulties in Ukraine and will soon decrease in size. 

Another core reason is an internal dispute with the Kremlin. In January 2023, Vladimir Putin appointed Valery Gerasimov, as commander of Russian troops in Ukraine. This move shows Putin’s political desire to strengthen the Russian Defense Ministry.  Vladimir Putin is replacing Wagner fighters, with a new patch of conscripts that are finishing their basic training. This move comes when there is a growing internal rift between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Yevgeny Prigozhin, as he is threatening the status of the MoD with his own army.

What is driving Prigozhin?

Answer: Prigozhin desires to increase his power and influence on Russia’s decision-making. 

Prigozhin intends to complement his reputation as Putin’s influential courtier with real political weight in the eyes of the Russian public while marking a distance with the siloviki”. The “siloviki” are Russian strongmen with intelligence backgrounds and dominate key economic positions in Russia. Prigozhin has been marking a distance with the siloviki given his political ambitions. 

The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, Putin’s position is weakened. In the meantime, Evgeny Prigozhin is often heard flattering Russia’s frustrated nationalists. He has repeatedly encouraged the people in resenting the super-privileged “elites” in Russia’s high offices. In late October 2022, he accused the Russian “elites” of evading mobilization.

This criticism of state bureaucrats and the business sector comes in hand with Prigozhin’s consideration of a conservative movement that might turn into a full-fledged political party in the future. This movement is focused on “patriotism and statism” and it targets the ultra-patriotic niche who do not fully support Putin’s policies. It is critical of the elites, the bureaucracy, and the business sector and aims at a population segment within Russia’s less developed towns and cities. 

Prigozhin wants to remove his enemies in the MoD, while keeping Putin’s favour. However, Vladimir Putin has favoured the Russian MoD, cooling Prigozhin’s temperature. His ties with the state are informal, and therefore fragile, and could end, as he has never been close enough to Putin to be trusted.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Prigozhin’s actions concern human rights and the continent of Africa.

The Wagner Group mercenaries are popping up all over Ukraine, allegedly committing blatant war crimes and providing the necessary combat skill lacking among young, untrained Russian conscripts. However, Wagner’s focus has been increasing its footprint in Africa where the Wagner group has been accused of perpetrating human rights violations. Furthermore, the presence of the Wagner Group in Africa is an early indicator of how Prigozhin is getting leverage within Russia and how Moscow alters the political and regional status quo in Africa in the short term.