Never during the 23 years of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule has he faced the kind of challenge posed by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection over the weekend.
The gravity of the crisis was underlined by Putin’s televised address on Saturday. He likened the insurgent’s “criminal adventure” to the catastrophe of 1917, when “intrigues, squabbles and politicking” on the home front triggered a military collapse, revolution and civil war.
In an obvious reference to Prigozhin, Putin claimed that “excessive ambition and personal interests led to treason, to the betrayal of the motherland and the people and the cause” for which Wagner soldiers had fought and died.
From catering food to running a trolling factory
What Putin has ignored is his own role in the transformation of Prigozhin from a convicted criminal and catering entrepreneur into a formidable political force in his own right.
Prigozhin was not merely “Putin’s cook” and a pro-Kremlin oligarch. He was a product of the peculiar kind of authoritarian regime that Putin created during his two decades in power.
In at least three ways, Putin ushered Prigozhin to the centre of Russia’s political stage.
First, Prigozhin was a beneficiary of the Kremlin’s strategy of using loyalist proxies to attack the regime’s domestic opponents and fabricate the illusion of popular support.
The prototype was Nashi (“Ours”), a youth organisation that was created to insulate Russia from the contagion of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004. Funded by obedient oligarchs, “Nashi” organised massive anti-Western demonstrations and violent attacks on anti-Kremlin militants, but proved powerless to deter mass protests against election fraud in 2011–12.
As the Putin regime struggled to contain this unfolding revolution, it turned to Prigozhin. Then best known as a St Petersburg catering magnate, Prigozhin quickly proved his usefulness by infiltrating the protest movement and funding a notorious television documentary that smeared pro-democracy demonstrators as paid hirelings of the West.
This was merely a prelude to Prigozhin’s main contribution to the consolidation of Putin’s power.
Although the regime had regained control of the streets, the opposition continued to dominate online political discussion. To neutralise this threat, Prigozhin created the Internet Research Agency. This trolling factory employed hundreds of staff, working around the clock to create the illusion of a groundswell of support for the regime.
It also became a tool of Russian influence on the international stage. Its intervention in the 2016 US presidential election helped Donald Trump to win and earned Prigozhin a place on the US sanctions list.
The advantage of proxies like Prigozhin was that they offered a shield of plausible deniability to the Kremlin. The drawback: they were harder to control.
One notorious example was the neo-Nazi outfit “Russkii Obraz” (Russian Image). Its leader was simultaneously collaborating with the Kremlin and organising a terrorist campaign against its own opponents, including police and federal judges.
The Wagner Group is born
Putin’s second contribution to Prigozhin’s ascent was the 2014 invasion of Ukraine when Russia annexed Crimea. Like the Kremlin’s domestic control strategies, the “hybrid warfare” that Russia unleashed on Ukraine involved proxies, or non-state actors, working in close collaboration with the Russian armed forces.
Numerous Kremlin-aligned formations participated in this effort to create the illusion of an authentic popular uprising in southeast Ukraine.
The most durable was the Wagner Group, which was created after a meeting in the Defence Ministry in the summer of 2014. Prigozhin requested the use of military facilities to train volunteers to fight in Ukraine and emphasised that “Papa” (Putin) had endorsed the project.
Wagner mercenaries played an important role in the defeat of Ukrainian forces in the battle of Debaltseve in early 2015. They also became an instrument of Russia’s intervention in Syria, where Prigozhin acquired concessions for natural resources in return for security services.
This pattern was repeated in Africa, where Prigozhin worked with Russian diplomats to amass mining and forestry concessions, while propping up some of the continent’s most brutal regimes.
Prigozhin’s swift rise in power
Putin’s third gift to Prigozhin was the hollowing out of Russia’s state institutions.
As the Kremlin tightened its stranglehold over the electoral process, Russia’s parliament became accountable to the regime, not the people. Independent political parties were crushed. The media were progressively subjugated by the Kremlin and its allied oligarchs. Civil society was devastated through the passage of new laws against “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations”. Instead of upholding the law, the judiciary and security agencies became tools of repression.
In this scorched, lawless landscape, Prigozhin flourished.
As an oligarch known for his private army and friends in the Kremlin, he operated with impunity. Investigative journalists who tried to shed light on the Wagner Group were harassed and sometimes died in unclear circumstances. His media empire, consolidated in 2019 as the Patriot Media Group, gave him a national platform.
It took Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine to transform Prigozhin from a dangerous regime proxy into a contender for power.
The first months of the war coincided with a draconian crackdown on the last remnants of political opposition, civil society and independent media in Russia. At the same time, the repeated defeats of Russian forces on the battlefield magnified the importance of Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries.
The simmering conflict between the Defence Ministry and Prigozhin revealed the erosion of Putin’s capacity to mediate between state institutions and non-state proxies.
In May, when Prigozhin warned of revolution and lambasted the “public, fat, carefree lives” of the children of the elite, he was striking at the foundations of the regime.
A month later, when Prigozhin mounted his armed rebellion and marched virtually unchallenged towards Moscow, he demonstrated that almost no one was prepared to defend the ageing dictator in his hour of need.
Having sown the wind, Putin has now reaped the whirlwind.