Putin and Prigozhin
Vladimir Putin tours Yevgeny Prigozhin's Concord food catering factory in 2010 (Photo: Government of the Russian Federation)

This week, Vladimir Putin’s mur­der­ous war of aggres­sion against Ukraine took a remark­able turn when one of his own hench­men ini­ti­at­ed an armed upris­ing against the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment and began mobi­liz­ing his fight­ers to march on Moscow, back­ing down only after the Krem­lin offered him a dig­ni­fied exit ramp.

Yevge­ny Prigozhin, six­ty-two, is a polit­i­cal oper­a­tive, mer­ce­nary orga­niz­er, and favorite of Vladimir Putin’s who has admit­ted to being the founder of the evil Wag­n­er Group and ille­gal­ly inter­fer­ing in Unit­ed States elec­tions. Prigozhin acquired the nick­name “Putin’s chef” because he owns restau­rants and cater­ing com­pa­nies that have pre­vi­ous­ly pro­vid­ed ser­vices for the Kremlin.

In 2020, “a long-run­ning inves­ti­ga­tion by Belling­cat, The Insid­er and Der Spiegel… uncov­ered that Yevge­ny Prigozhin’s dis­in­for­ma­tion, polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence and mil­i­tary oper­a­tions are tight­ly inte­grat­ed with Russia’s Defense Min­istry and its intel­li­gence arm, the GRU,” reads a report pub­lished by the three pub­li­ca­tions.

“Prigozhin’s pri­vate infra­struc­ture – along with that of oth­er gov­ern­ment-depen­dent entre­pre­neurs, like Kostan­tin Mal­ofeev – it appears serves as a deni­able veneer and a round-trip­ping mon­ey laun­der­ing chan­nel for gov­ern­ment-man­dat­ed over­seas oper­a­tions.” Their full report is well worth read­ing.

The Wag­n­er Group has played a key role in Putin’s mur­der­ous war of aggres­sion against Ukraine, but Prigozhin has increas­ing­ly become open­ly crit­i­cal of the pros­e­cu­tion of the war and has accost­ed oth­ers with­in Putin’s inner cir­cle and in the Krem­lin. A few days ago, he alleged, with­out offer­ing any evi­dence, that the Russ­ian mil­i­tary had attacked his fight­ers, and sub­se­quent­ly moved to take over a key Russ­ian mil­i­tary base inside of Rus­sia — Ros­tov-on-Don. Some of his fight­ers then began advanc­ing towards Moscow, with his approval and encouragement.

The Russ­ian gov­ern­ment swift­ly pro­claimed him a muti­neer, with Putin declar­ing in a tele­vised speech that his con­duct was trea­so­nous. The Krem­lin direct­ed the FSB to ini­ti­ate a crim­i­nal case against Prigozhin for “incit­ing an armed revolt” against the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, as some Wag­n­er forces got clos­er to an increas­ing­ly locked down Moscow, Prigozhin decid­ed to accept an offer from the Krem­lin, bro­kered by a Putin ally, to go to Belarus and call off his uprising.

“As part of the roller coast­er devel­op­ments, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Krem­lin spokesman, told jour­nal­ists on Sat­ur­day night that the crim­i­nal case against Mr. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wag­n­er mer­ce­nary group, would be dropped,” The New York Times report­ed. “Under the terms of the deal, Mr. Prigozhin will go to Belarus, Mr. Peskov said, while the fight­ers who rebelled with him would not be pros­e­cut­ed, giv­en their ‘ser­vice at the front.’ Wag­n­er fight­ers who did not par­tic­i­pate in the mutiny would have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sign con­tracts with the Russ­ian Min­istry of Defense and con­tin­ue their ser­vice, he said, say­ing their ‘hero­ic deeds at the front’ would ‘always be respected.’ ”

Many Wag­n­er fight­ers are con­victs who were recruit­ed from pris­ons to par­tic­i­pate in Putin’s con­quest of Ukraine. They are par­tic­u­lar­ly loathed by Ukrain­ian forces.

The brazen Prigozhin per­haps cal­cu­lat­ed that he had suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing his point and roil­ing Putin’s inner cir­cle, but was­n’t get­ting the sup­port nec­es­sary to take his insur­rec­tion fur­ther and accom­plish grander goals. While Prigozhin has vocal­ly crit­i­cized many Russ­ian offi­cials, he has remained respect­ful of Putin.

“Accord­ing to Russ­ian State Media, Major Changes to the Lead­er­ship of the Russ­ian Min­istry of Defense includ­ing changes to the cur­rent Defense Min­is­ter, Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of Gen­er­al Staff, Valery Gerasi­mov have report­ed­ly been Agreed upon in order to Stop the March of the Wag­n­er PMC Group towards the Cap­i­tal of Moscow; these Nego­ti­a­tions have also report­ed­ly includ­ed the assured ‘Secu­ri­ty of the Wag­n­er Group,’ ” tweet­ed OSINT­de­fend­er. “These Nego­ti­a­tions are also report­ed to have includ­ed a ‘Stip­u­la­tion’ that the Major­i­ty of Wag­n­er PMC Forces will be Rede­ployed out of Rus­sia and Ukraine to Africa.”

How­ev­er, the Asso­ci­at­ed Press report­ed: “Prigozhin did not say whether the Krem­lin had respond­ed to his demand [to get rid of Russ­ian Defense Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu]. Peskov [the Krem­lin spokesman] said the issue could not have been dis­cussed dur­ing the nego­ti­a­tions, which were con­duct­ed by the pres­i­dent of Belarus, and is the ‘exclu­sive pre­rog­a­tive of the com­man­der in chief.’ ”

“Prigozhin’s phe­nom­e­nal choice…” com­ment­ed Mykhai­lo Podolyak, an advis­er to Ukrain­rain Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­skyy, after the deal was announced.

“You almost nul­li­fied Putin, took con­trol of the cen­tral author­i­ties, reached Moscow and sud­den­ly… you retreat. Because one very spe­cif­ic inter­me­di­ary with a dubi­ous rep­u­ta­tion (#Lukashenko) promised secu­ri­ty guar­an­tees from the per­son (#Putin) who ordered to destroy you in the morning.”

“And for the fear that the Putin elite has expe­ri­enced in the past twen­ty-four hours, this order will cer­tain­ly be executed.”

“Although not with­out ben­e­fit: #Prigozhin humil­i­at­ed Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monop­oly on violence…”

Zelen­skyy, mean­while, declared: “Today, the world saw that the boss­es of Rus­sia do not con­trol any­thing. Noth­ing at all. Com­plete chaos. Com­plete absence of any pre­dictabil­i­ty. First, the world should not be afraid. We know what pro­tects us. Our uni­ty. Ukraine will def­i­nite­ly be able to pro­tect Europe from any Russ­ian forces, and it does­n’t mat­ter who com­mands them. We will pro­tect. The secu­ri­ty of Europe’s east­ern flank depends only on our defense.”

“Ukrain­ian sol­diers, Ukrain­ian guns, Ukrain­ian tanks, Ukrain­ian mis­siles are all that pro­tect Europe from such march­es as we see today on Russ­ian ter­ri­to­ry. And when we ask to give us the F‑16 fight­ers or the ATACMS, we’re enhanc­ing our com­mon defense. Real defense,” Zelen­skyy added, shrewd­ly work­ing in an appeal for fur­ther defense assis­tance from NATO and Ukraine’s west­ern allies.

“It’s time for every­one in the world to frankly say that all of Rus­si­a’s crim­i­nal actions against Ukraine were and are unpro­voked,” Zelen­skyy con­tin­ued. “And we all have to focus exclu­sive­ly on our com­mon secu­ri­ty pri­or­i­ties. NATO is not just a word or a set of for­mal promis­es. These are reli­able guar­an­tees for every­one that peace won’t be destroyed. With­out Ukraine, such guar­an­tees are worth­less. Already in July at the sum­mit in Vil­nius, it is a his­toric chance for real deci­sions with­out look­ing back at Rus­sia. Any nation that bor­ders Rus­sia sup­ports this.”

“What will we, Ukraini­ans, do? We will defend our coun­try. We will defend our free­dom. We will not be silent and we will not be inac­tive. We know how to win – and it will hap­pen. Our vic­to­ry in this war. And what will you, Rus­sians, do? The longer your troops stay on Ukrain­ian land, the more dev­as­ta­tion they will bring to Rus­sia. The longer this per­son is in the Krem­lin, the more dis­as­ters there will be.”

(“This per­son” is a ref­er­ence to Vladimir Putin).

“It will be inter­est­ing to see how the Russ­ian Air Force and Russ­ian sol­diers work with Wag­n­er in the future,” said Rob Lee of the For­eign Pol­i­cy Research Insti­tute, not­ing that Russ­ian chan­nels are sug­gest­ing Wag­n­er is respon­si­ble for the destruc­tion of 7–8 Russ­ian air­craft dur­ing the past 48 hours, which sup­pos­ed­ly result­ed in the deaths of thir­teen or more air­men. “Wag­n­er’s pilots like­ly knew some of those killed today, and Wag­n­er depends on the Russ­ian Air Force in Ukraine and for oper­a­tions else­where. This is just the beginning.”

“If it is actu­al­ly true that no one in Wag­n­er will be pun­ished for this, there will be a lot of ani­mos­i­ty direct­ed at the lead­er­ship of the MoD and the Krem­lin for allow­ing Russ­ian air­men to be killed with­out a seri­ous response,” Lee added.

Prigozhin is a want­ed man in the West and must be care­ful where he sets foot.  The Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion has offered a reward of $250,000 for any infor­ma­tion which leads to his arrest. His want­ed poster explains:

Yev­geniy Vik­torovich Prigozhin is want­ed by the FBI for his alleged involve­ment in a con­spir­a­cy to defraud the Unit­ed States by impair­ing, obstruct­ing, and defeat­ing the law­ful func­tions of the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of Jus­tice, and the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of State.

This occurred in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., from ear­ly 2014 to Feb­ru­ary 16, 2018. Prigozhin was the pri­ma­ry fun­der of the St. Peters­burg-based Inter­net Research Agency (IRA). He alleged­ly over­saw and approved their polit­i­cal and elec­toral inter­fer­ence oper­a­tions in the Unit­ed States which includ­ed the pur­chase of Amer­i­can com­put­er serv­er space, the cre­ation of hun­dreds of fic­ti­tious online per­sonas, and the use of stolen iden­ti­ties of per­sons from the Unit­ed States.

These actions were alleged­ly tak­en to reach sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Amer­i­cans for the pur­pos­es of inter­fer­ing with the Unit­ed States polit­i­cal sys­tem, includ­ing the 2016 Pres­i­den­tial Election.

On Feb­ru­ary 16, 2018, a fed­er­al arrest war­rant was issued for Yev­geniy Vik­torovich Prigozhin in the Unit­ed States Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia after he was charged with con­spir­a­cy to defraud the Unit­ed States.

Belarus, where Prigozhin is head­ed, is an ally of Rus­sia and has no extra­di­tion agree­ment with the Unit­ed States. It remains to be seen whether Putin and his min­ions will over­look Prigozhin’s treach­ery in the hope that he can be of use to them, or whether they will make an attempt to elim­i­nate him.

Why has Putin tol­er­at­ed Prigozhin’s rhetor­i­cal bombs against Russ­ian mil­i­tary lead­er­ship? New York Times Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovs­ki offered this the­o­ry in a news analy­sis: “Many believed that the pres­i­dent saw good rea­son not to put a final stop to Mr. Prigozhin’s social media attacks on the Defense Min­istry, which he char­ac­ter­ized as inept, cor­rupt and indif­fer­ent to sol­diers’ lives.”

“Some ana­lysts say Mr. Putin saw him as a use­ful fig­ure — a check against the risk that a mil­i­tary leader could become over­ly popular.”

Troianovs­ki con­clud­ed his arti­cle with a quote from Mark Gale­ot­ti, “a Lon­don-based polit­i­cal sci­en­tist, lec­tur­er and writer on transna­tion­al crime and Russ­ian secu­ri­ty affairs and direc­tor of the con­sul­tan­cy Mayak Intelligence.”

Prigozhin “had no real inde­pen­dent pow­er base except the favor of the pres­i­dent,” Gale­ot­ti told Troianovs­ki. The arti­cle ends with these words: “How­ev­er this goes, it under­mines Putin’s cred­i­bil­i­ty and legitimacy.”

That’s for sure. We’ve all just wit­nessed a piv­otal devel­op­ment in this con­flict which could have deeply neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions for Putin and Russia.

Putin has been gam­bling that he and the forces he con­trols can out­last the West and ulti­mate­ly sub­ju­gate Ukraine. But the events of the last few days have blown up the pic­ture of the con­flict he and his under­lings have tried to paint.

The rapid piv­ot to cut­ting a deal demon­strates the Krem­lin’s des­per­a­tion. They are not oper­at­ing from a posi­tion of strength. Russ­ian forces are not uni­fied, they are in dis­ar­ray… and every­one can see that, not just Europe and NATO, but the entire glob­al com­mu­ni­ty, from Chi­na to Iran to the mem­bers of the African Union.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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