Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group military company, arrives during a funeral service at Troyekurovskoye Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, April 8, 2023.
Tensions between the Kremlin and the head of Russia’s private military company Wagner Group emerged this week as President Vladimir Putin appeared to take sides in a long-running and very public dispute between Russian mercenaries and the Defense Ministry.
It is well known that there is no love between the outspoken head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian Ministry of Defense; Prigozhin openly and repeatedly criticized top ministry officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in expletive-laden rants alluding to Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine.
He also accused senior defense officials of treason and deliberately withholding ammunition for the Wagner Group, which has spent months fighting in Bakhmut, the epicenter of intense hostilities in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has been very careful not to direct any public criticism of the Kremlin and Putin, and is one of the president’s longtime associates and supporters.
Now, however, tensions appear to be emerging between Prigozhin and the Russian leadership, putting him in a precarious position vis-à-vis the Russian president.
While Wagner had his uses in Ukraine (and could probably boast some gains where Russia’s regular army did not), the Russian Ministry of Defense sought to limit the group’s influence, and Prigozhin’s influence in particular.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) speaks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov (L) after a meeting of the Council of the Russian Defense Ministry on December 21, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev | Afp | Getty Images
The latest move to control the mercenary group came last Saturday when Shoigu announced that “volunteer formations” and private military companies would have to sign contracts directly with the ministry by July 1.
The ministry claimed that “this will give volunteer formations the necessary legal status, create common approaches to organizing comprehensive support and fulfilling their tasks.” This was reported by the state agency TASS.
Prigozhin reacted to the announcement with characteristic defiance, saying on Sunday that “Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu,” adding that the order did not apply to the Wagner Group.
But then on Tuesday, Putin explicitly supported a move to enforce contracts with private military companies, with the president he said he wanted to change the law to legalize their activities.
“This is the only way to ensure social guarantees (for mercenary fighters) because (currently) there is no contract with the state and no contract with the Ministry of Defense,” Putin told a group of war correspondents.
Notably, despite Putin’s comments, Prigozhin again refused to sign any treaty, saying on Wednesday that “when we started participating in this war, no one said that we would be obliged to enter into agreements with the Ministry of Defense.” he said in Telegram as translated by Google.
He added that “none of the Wagner PMC fighters are ready to go down the path of shame again. So no one will sign contracts.”
Prigozhin has said he is confident a compromise can be found to avoid the need for a defense ministry contract, but analysts say the mercenary chief is on shaky ground in his apparent defiance of Putin.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense noted the growing tension on Thursday, noting that “Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been leveling vicious criticism at the Ministry of Defense for several months. [Ministry of Defense] hierarchy, but subordinate to Putin’s authority.”
Now he noted that “Prigozhin’s rhetoric is developing in defiance of the broader layers of the Russian establishment.” It warned that July 1 – the deadline for volunteers to sign contracts – “is likely to be a key point of contention”.
Wagner Group Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of Dmitri Menshikov, a Wagner Group fighter who died during a special operation in Ukraine, at Beloostrovskoye Cemetery near St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 24, 2022.
Prigozhin became an increasingly prominent figure and entered the independent world Levada Center’s index on Russian people’s trust in public figures for the first time in May – giving it a 4% rating. This puts him on the same level of trust as former President Dmitry Medvedev and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, noted on Wednesday that he may be increasingly vulnerable as he becomes more well-known and is seen as a possible challenger to Putin.
“Prigozhin is playing independent politics, raising the stakes and testing the system’s susceptibility as he goes. But both technically and physically, this is possible only as long as this clean-shaven enfant terrible is useful to Putin,” Kolesnikov said in comments published in Carnegie Politics.
However, he noted that “in the current political system… Prigozhin can be anti-elite – and consequently popular – if he is pro-Putin. It would take the slightest sign from Putin to make Chief Wagner disappear from the information space (and indeed other spaces ),” he said.
While Prigozhin represents “an outgoing leader who speaks to the people without intermediaries, as befits a populist and a real leader”, Kolesnikov said that “the only problem is that Russia already has such a leader: President Vladimir Putin”.