- Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an armed revolt against Russian military leadership and survived.
- War experts say Putin can’t risk killing him, at least for now, and may have another approach in mind.
- The Kremlin seems focused on discrediting Prigozhin and eroding his support to undercut his power.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has survived launching an armed revolt threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power, a feat few thought possible, but the Russian leader may still be coming for him.
As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko tells the story, Prigozhin is still alive because he intervened on his behalf, convincing Putin not to kill his former ally and pushing a deal that sent the founder of the paramilitary Wagner Group into exile in Belarus. But there’s likely more to it than that.
At the moment, Putin can’t risk making Prigozhin a martyr by eliminating him outright for his “betrayal,” war experts said, so he may instead be looking to discredit him, erode his support, and potentially pursue other forms of retribution.
Prigozhin is said to already be in Belarus, though his exact whereabouts are uncertain, and the Wagner Group is preparing to surrender heavy weaponry to the defense ministry as its fighters are given the choice to sign contracts with the Russian military or join their exiled leader in Belarus. The state appears keen on taking control of Wagner’s global operations.
It’s certainly a bleak reversal of fortunes for a group hailed as heroes after their costly victory in Bakhmut, but the situation could be worse. And for Prigozhin, who aggressively undermined his primary benefactor, it may still be.
Through his rebellion, Prigozhin turned a longstanding feud with the Russian defense ministry into a civil war, a conflict that, while brief, saw Russians killing other Russians, and obliterated the Russian leadership’s carefully crafted narrative that everything is going according to plan with the Ukraine war.
Highways were dug up as heavily-armed Wagner forces advanced, shooting down Russian planes, and the capital, Moscow, was bracing for bloodshed. And all of this came as the Russian defense ministry was trying to hold the lines in Ukraine against a counteroffensive threatening Russia’s limited gains. These are not the kinds of things that get easily overlooked. They make the Russian leadership look weak and ineffective.
Prigozhin draws a degree of protection from supporters in the very online ultranationalist pro-war community as a leading voice calling for no-holds-barred combat and an end to the incompetent leadership that he asserts is getting troops killed. This support has limits, as seen by his inability to achieve greater support for his mutiny, but Prigozhin’s prominence in this space has helped shield him.
And that continues to be the case for now. As the Institute for the Study of War noted in a recent update, “Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time.”
He “still retains some support within Russian society and the Russian regular forces, and the Kremlin will need to ensure that these groups become disillusioned with Prigozhin to effectively deprive him of his popular support in Russia,” ISW said.
In a discussion with members of the Russian military Tuesday, Putin appeared to take aim at Prigozhin’s character by challenging assertions he financed Wagner and presenting him as a participant in the corruption that runs rampant in Russia.
After revealing that the Russian government spent billions on Wagner’s operations and supply contracts with Prigozhin’s catering company, Putin said he hopes “that in the course of this work, no one stole anything — or, let’s say, didn’t steal much.” He added that “we will certainly get to the bottom of this.”
Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider that “Putin needs to neutralize the challenge from Prigozhin, the attack on his authority and effort to burnish Prigozhin’s own image as a brave warrior and populist enemy of the corrupt elite.”
“So what to do? Putin can have him killed of course, but that would likely backfire and make him look both brutal and weak. And it could make Prigozhin into a martyr,” English said, arguing that Putin is likely to seek out other ways to destroy Prigozhin.
ISW, which has followed the war and its developments closely, assesses “Putin is trying to present Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society” and could be setting the stage to later target Prigozhin with corruption charges and confiscate his assets.
Since the failed rebellion against the Russian defense ministry over the weekend, expert observers have seen increased criticism within the pro-war community of Prigozhin and Wagner.
The Kremlin has made a point of forgiving the Wagner fighters while offering opportunities to sign contracts with the Russian military, an added benefit as the war in Ukraine continues.
For individuals higher up in the mercenary organization considered responsible for the rebellion, people like Prigozhin, Russian leadership has hinted at unspecified consequences.
The Kremlin is likely trying to deprive Prigozhin of influence by separating his cause, an animosity for the defense ministry shared by many pro-war ultranationalists figures, from him personally, as well as weakening his connection to Wagner overall.
As the Kremlin works to reestablish control in the wake of Prigozhin’s revolt, which did tremendous damage to the credibility and perceived strength of the Russian state, ISW assesses it “will likely continue to attack Prigozhin’s character to break Prigozhin’s popular support, discourage Wagner personnel from following him to Belarus, and destroy his financial power.”
English speculated that the Russian leadership could take these activities even further, saying that Putin might turn up the pressure on Prigozhin by “publicizing his criminal past, painting him as corrupt and a deviant.
“In short,” English said, “Putin will assassinate Prigozhin’s character first. And when his image has been sufficiently tarnished, Putin might then assassinate him for real.”