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The mercenary magnate is talkative, opinionated, blunt-spoken—but what does he really want?
OVER THE PAST SPRING, amid the tense wait for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the segment of the Russian invading forces that commanded the most attention was the Wagner Group, the “private military company” founded by food-service tycoon (and longtime Vladimir Putin crony) Yevgeny Prigozhin. As Wagner units took the leading role in the grinding, gruesomely bloody, months-long fight for Bakhmut, Prigozhin himself became something of a star—not only of his own viral videos appeared with some regularity, but of reports from independent Russian media and Western journalists.
Yet back in February 2022 when Putin’s “special military operation” began, Prigozhin was still denying his connection with Wagner, even via legal action—and whatever role Wagner played in the war was kept very much on the down-low. In the first days of the invasion, Ukrainian intelligence said that Wagner mercenaries had been flown into Kyiv with an assignment to assassinate some two dozen senior Ukrainian officials, with President Volodymyr Zelensky at the top of the list. (When the British government repeated this claim a month later, a Prigozhin spokesman responded by questioning the Wagner Group’s existence.) The following April, Der Spiegel reported that German intelligence intercepts of Russian radio chatter linked Wagner men to the massacres of civilians in Bucha—something that would not be at all out of character for Prigozhin’s mercenary army, which leaves a trail of atrocities pretty much everywhere it goes. But these reports from the war’s early days remain unconfirmed.
As for Prigozhin, his public role in the war early on was limited to cheerleading. Three days after the invasion, he wrote a column for the Federal News Agency, one of the news sites he owns, hailing the “peacekeeping liberation operation” as an instant success: “Our [tank] columns are already rumbling down the streets of almost-liberated Kharkov [while] the Nazis in Kiev [sic] are completely surrounded.” Prigozhin lauded the Russian military for killing “Nazis” while sparing civilians with “microsurgical precision.” He also mocked war critics, suggesting either “soap and rope” or “a ‘special operation’ called castration” as a cure for whatever ailed them.
А few months later, when it was already abundantly clear that the “special operation” was not going according to plan, Wagner units took a more active role in the fighting; they were reportedly instrumental in capturing Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in late June and early July, giving Russia full control of the Luhansk region. Suddenly, the mercenary group’s exploits were being openly celebrated on state-run Russian television. A sleek glass-and-steel PMC Wagner Center opened in St. Petersburg, and the group’s recruiting posters and billboards sporting its black, red, and gold Nazi-aesthetic logo—two crossed swords and a five-pointed star in a circle with the words, PMC Wagner * Blood * Honor * Motherland * Courage—began to appear on city streets and highways.
Prigozhin, who got a “Hero of Russia” medal for the group’s battlefield successes, went public as well. Last September, a bombshell video—most likely leaked by Prigozhin himself—showed him recruiting prisoners in a penal colony to fight in Wagner ranks in exchange for a pardon after six months of service. Prigozhin initially responded to queries with what would come to be recognized as his usual trolling: A statement from his company’s press service, probably composed by Prigozhin, acknowledged that the man in the video looked and sounded “stupendously” like him and praised the man’s good work. A few days later, the businessman finally admitted his role as the Wagner group’s founder and chief.
Two months later, the Wagner saga took an even darker turn when a Telegram channel linked to the group posted a video showing the apparent sledgehammer murder, presumably by Wagner soldiers, of ex-Wagner fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin, a penal-colony recruit who had been captured by the Ukrainians and talked publicly about defecting to the Ukrainian side. Prigozhin (who may have traded as many as 40 Ukrainian POWs to get Nuzhin back) made macabre jokes about the “excellent directorial work” and suggested “To a dog, a dog’s death” as the title. After some official noises in Russia about investigating the extrajudicial execution, Prigozhin offered a longer but equally trollish comment about an elaborate CIA plot to groom and murder Nuzhin. Leaning into his Dr. Evil persona, he also responded to a European Parliament resolution condemning the Wagner Group with a post about sending a bloodied sledgehammer in a violin case to the parliament’s offices.
From then on, the previously secretive Prigozhin couldn’t stop hogging the limelight. He assailed, often in tandem with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the generals whom he blamed for failures in the war and he lashed out at Russia’s pampered elites who continued to live comfortable lives while soldiers were suffering and dying. In late 2022 and early 2023, with Wagner troops—now primarily an army of convicts—stuck in the hellish “meat grinder” at Soledar and Bakhmut, Prigozhin’s clashes with the military establishment escalated. He promoted a video clip in which Wagner fighters hurled obscenities and anti-gay slurs at Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, berating him for failing to provide enough ammunition and assistance—and later complained that he was being pressured to apologize to “someone up there” in order to get more ammo. He griped about being denied credit for the capture of Soledar in January. By February, he was accusing the defense ministry of “high treason” over Wagner’s munitions troubles.
Prigozhin’s rising stardom was aided by his persona as a colorful, wisecracking tough guy who peppered his tirades with profanity and criminal argot. (Putin has often used milder vulgarities in a similar way, though with much less flair.) He also threw in occasional crude threats, in true ex-convict style, of male-on-male sexualized violence toward his targets; during a feud with fellow war hawk Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, the former FSB officer and “Donetsk People’s Republic” commander, he jeeringly invited Girkin to return to the fight in Ukraine by joining Wagner ranks and added, “Try to run, and I’ll piss on your face.”
YET PRIGOZHIN ALSO PERMITTED himself shocking departures from the war-hawk script—such as speaking respectfully of the Ukrainian adversary. Late last year, he opined that while Zelensky might be the leader of a currently hostile state, he was “a tough, self-confident, pragmatic, likable guy”—not, as Russian propaganda narratives asserted, a drug-addled NATO stooge and a Jewish figurehead for a Nazi regime. Then, in March, Prigozhin publicly questioned claims that Russia was fighting “Nazis” or NATO soldiers in Ukraine and defended a father prosecuted for “discrediting the armed forces” because of his daughter’s antiwar drawing.
Early last month, Prigozhin’s war on the top military command and the defense ministry over what he claimed was deliberately imposed “shell hunger” escalated. His most famous video showed him standing against the shocking backdrop of a field of corpses, many covered in fresh blood (“Film everyone,” he tells the cameraman). “These are someone’s fathers, fuck it, and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin yells furiously, blaming the men’s deaths on lack of ammunition and directly blasting Gerasimov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu: “Gerasimov! Shoigu! Fuck it, where’s the ammo, bitches?”
To what extent these grievances were valid is an open question. Journalist and analyst Michael Nacke has argued that Wagner long enjoyed preferential treatment over regular army units when it came to munitions, and that the gripes were simply about being downgraded to equal treatment. (It’s entirely possible, however, that this downgrading was related to Prigozhin being out of favor: By then, he had also been barred from recruiting in penal colonies after a change in legislation allowed the army to conduct such recruitment.) Ukrainian military commanders have also dismissed Prigozhin’s cries about “shell hunger” as an excuse for months of failure at Bakhmut. The Russian military may also have been conserving its munitions for use against Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive, which would be a reasonable decision even if it raised Prigozhin’s ire.
In subsequent videos, Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner troops from Bakhmut unless more ammunition was issued, threatened the officials again, and made a cryptic remark about a “happy grandpa” who thinks the war is going well but may be “a total asshole.” (This was almost universally taken as a reference to Putin, widely known as “the bunker grandpa.”) Finally, on May 20, the Wagner chief released a new video announcing the capture of Bakhmut—and the imminent departure of Wagner forces, who he said would turn over the ruined city to regular troops. Given that Prigozhin had claimed nearly two months earlier that his men had “legally” taken Bakhmut by planting a Russian flag on the remnants of city hall, the announcement was met with some skepticism—especially since it was punctuated by off-camera artillery fire or explosions. Even if the victory was real this time, it was largely meaningless, since Russian troops had no plausible route to advance further and Ukrainian forces had retaken secure positions around the city.
There was widespread speculation that Prigozhin was in a rush to get out of Bakhmut because he knew that it would soon be recaptured by the Ukrainians. Prominent Russian journalist Yulia Latynina (now in exile like most of her independent colleagues) has argued that Prigozhin’s video ragefests were actually well-calculated performances with the pragmatic goal of leaving Bakhmut while he could.
SUCH SPECULATION was at least temporarily overshadowed by Prigozhin’s startling long interview with pro-war Russian blogger Konstantin Dolgov on May 24. The mercenary magnate arguably made more politically shocking public statements in this one interview than he had in his whole career up to that point.
What drew the most attention was Prigozhin’s apparent praise for Ukraine and his frank admission that Russia had not only failed spectacularly in achieving the goals of its “special operation” but achieved the opposite of those goals:
About denazifying Ukraine—we made Ukraine a nation known all over the world. It’s like, I don’t know, the Greeks in the age of Greece’s flowering. Just like the Romans. . . . We legitimized Ukraine. Ukraine has become a country absolutely everyone knows. That’s as far as “denazification.”
As for “demilitarization”. . . . If they had, just to pick a number, 500 tanks at the start of the special operation, they now have 5,000. They had 20,000 people with good combat skills, they now have 400,000. So how did we demilitarize it? Turns out it’s just the opposite, we made sure it’s militarized as fuck.
Prigozhin went on to praise the Ukrainian army as the best fighting force in the world next to the Wagner Group, with a “high level of organization, high preparedness, a high level of intelligence” and an ability to work with both Western and Soviet weaponry. And he described Russia’s performance in the war in scathing terms that couldn’t be more different from his February 2022 column:
They announced the special operation. What that basically means is bringing Ukraine into our pro-Russian space. And many in Ukraine wanted to be in that space.
If we’re creating a pro-Russian space, we need to change the regime at the top, then kiss the people’s butts and ask them to come to us. Well, make a deal with the elites.
And what did we do? We came in a dickish way and stomped our boots all over Ukraine looking for Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we beat the crap out of everyone we could. Came all the way to [Kyiv], and then—in plain language—shat ourselves and left. Then to Kherson: again, shat ourselves and left. . . . And somehow nothing works out for us.
Just as bluntly, Prigozhin warned that not only was Russia in danger of losing the war, but “we can easily piss away Russia”—perhaps in a 1917-style revolution when disgruntled soldiers and their families “take up pitchforks” to topple the fattened elites. He also acknowledged that the “optimistic scenario” in which “Europe and America get tired of the Ukrainian conflict” and China brokers a deal allowing Russia to “keep everything we grabbed” was unlikely—while the “pessimistic” one in which Ukraine gets more aid and restores its pre-2014 borders “could easily happen.” The only way to win, Prigozhin asserted, was a total war effort: universal mobilization, a shift to a war economy, and a few years of “living like North Korea.”
Prigozhin renewed his savage attacks on Gerasimov and especially Shoigu, the defense minister, with repeated homophobic insinuations about Shoigu’s son-in-law, a fitness instructor and Instagrammer currently based in Dubai, whom Prigozhin accused of “shaking his buns” while Russian soldiers are coming home in body bags. (In case someone didn’t get it, he added that “there’s definitely a streak of blue there”—Russian slang for homosexuality—and that “it’s a family matter.”) Yet Prigozhin was conspicuously if briefly deferential to Putin. Asked about his political creed, he summarized it as, “I love the Motherland. I obey Putin. Kill Shoigu—as in ‘kill the referee,’ yeah? We’ll carry on fighting. And, basically, that’s it.”
But this curtsy toward Putin came in the midst of rhetoric that effectively strips away the emperor’s clothes and undercuts all the basic Kremlin propaganda tropes used to justify the war.
Take, for instance, what Prigozhin says about Ukraine in the long interview. While he echoes the standard line of a “coup” in 2014 and of American and European meddling, he also pins much of the blame on high-handed Russian neglect of “communication” with its neighbor—and on pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, “a complete degenerate who only cared about raking in the dough.” What’s more, while Prigozhin recycles the claim that the Maidan revolution was followed by maltreatment of ethnic Russians, he candidly admits that the Russia-controlled enclave in Donbas became “a shithole” mired in lawlessness and corruption. Notably, he undermined the official narrative of the Russia-Ukraine conflict even while repeating it: “After that, the Ukrainians started to prepare for aggression against Russia—or so they tell us. I have no information about this.” Ukrainian video blogger Denis Kazanskyi commented that Prigozhin had validated “everything we Ukrainians have been saying for the last eight or nine years.”
Prigozhin’s ode to the Ukrainian army ends with a parallel that seems calculated to explode Russian propagandists’ brains. Praising the Ukrainians’ “philosophical” attitude toward losses, he notes, “Everything they do goes toward achieving the supreme goal, just as it was for us during the Great Patriotic War. Just with more technological know-how and more precision.”
And then Prigozhin offers this thought on the possibility of a nuclear strike:
We started this fight. What’s a nuclear conflict? There are neighbors, they have a quarrel. You can go to your neighbor’s house and punch him in the face, or smash his dishes—anything can happen in a quarrel. But if your neighbor cusses you out and you take an ax and whack him on the head and fuck him up, that’s a pretty weird situation. A nuclear bomb is like that ax. You shouldn’t be chasing after your neighbor with an ax. Either beat the shit out of him in a fair fight, or admit that he beat you. . . . And [besides], any nuclear bomb is going to have a boomerang effect.
In sum, Prigozhin 1) suggests that Russia is the true aggressor in this war; 2) questions (yet again) the “Ukrainian Nazis” narrative; 3) acknowledges that the Russian army has lost huge numbers of men and brutalized Ukrainian civilians; 4) compares the Ukrainian fighters to Soviet soldiers fighting for their country during World War II, completely inverting the official narrative in which Russian soldiers in Ukraine today are carrying on their grandfathers’ anti-Nazi cause; and 5) mockingly dismisses the nuclear saber-rattling of the Kremlin and its propagandists.
If Prigozhin’s anti-establishment broadsides were initially sanctioned by Putin as a way to deflect the blame for failures in the war toward Gerasimov and Shoigu, it seems clear that he has gone far beyond such boundaries. No wonder he’s been not only banned from Russian television channels but apparently scrubbed from their archives.
NEEDLESS TO SAY, Prigozhin’s “blunt truth-teller” persona should not be taken at face value: Everything he says and does in public is an act. Sometimes it’s deliberate trolling, as when he says that Wagner never executes its fighters for infractions; they simply get sternly admonished and then die of heart failure “by pure coincidence.” Sometimes, it’s an artful mix of truth and lies—or just a plain and simple lie, such as his claim that Ukrainian losses at Bakhmut exceeded Wagner’s by three-to-one.
Prigozhin’s anti-elite posturing masks the fact that he and his family live the same lifestyle he deplores. His properties include a $15 million estate and palatial mansion in a St. Petersburg suburb—with a separate mansion for his eldest daughter, Polina—as well as a luxury jet and a 121-foot, six-bedroom, two-deck yacht that sounds more like a mini-cruise ship. (Younger daughter Veronica, 18, recently became the owner of a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg.) In the 2000s, the future nemesis of the elites also built a luxury housing development in St. Petersburg with the not-very-populist name Northern Versailles—for which he “privatized” a public street by blocking it off with gates.
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Prigozhin’s now-familiar screen presence as a uniformed military commander is just as much of an act as his populist persona. While his willingness to be at or near the frontlines in Bakhmut suggests a certain amount of physical courage that contrasts with Putin in his Kremlin hideout, COVID-proof country house, or seaside palace, there is no indication that Prigozhin has ever been in actual combat or even made command decisions. Likewise, the Wagner chief’s furious rants about the needless deaths of his fighters mask the fact that the group systematically uses its men—the poorly trained convicts, not the more valuable professional mercenaries—in literal suicide missions, forcing them to advance under enemy fire because the only other option is being gunned down by their own.
Prigozhin is a man with a game—but what’s the game? There are several theories:
1. Prigozhin is trying to rebuild his bridges to Putin by showing that he’s still a loyal henchman, ready to save his master from dangers posed by bad generals and greedy oligarchs.
That’s Latynina’s theory. She points out, for instance, that Prigozhin’s musings about pitchfork-wielding mobs seem calculated to play to Putin’s well-known fear of revolution.
But this seems unlikely. For one, Latynina concedes that Putin, who lives in a carefully curated information bubble, may never see Prigozhin’s interview (and Prigozhin knows it). And even if Putin were to see it, he would be infuriated by Prigozhin’s sacrilegious comparison of the Ukrainians’ war effort to the Soviet “Great Patriotic War” and his half-positive mention of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny—Putin’s unnamable bête noire—as a useful check on corruption.
2. Prigozhin is still playing a role stage-managed by Putin: the attack dog useful for terrorizing his other underlings and the “bad guy” who will convince both the West and the Russian elites that the alternative to Putin is even worse.
That’s the theory of political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky. It’s not extremely far-fetched: “Far-right nutcase who makes Putin look safe” was almost certainly the assigned role of the late populist buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But many of Prigozhin’s recent statements (see above) seem at odds with this role.
3. Prigozhin wants to become the leader of the “war hawk” faction and challenge Putin in the 2024 presidential election—with an extremely low chance of winning, but with a good chance of carving out a juicy piece of the political pie.
That’s the view advanced by political scientist Abbas Gallyamov in a Novaya Gazeta interview. Gallyamov believes that Prigozhin could become the head of a Duma bloc or a regional governor.
But, yet again, Prigozhin has been saying some peculiar things for a war hawk. Besides the ones already mentioned, he casts the war effort in surprisingly non-ideological, and cynical, terms. In the Dolgov interview, he speaks of “everything we grabbed” in Ukraine, not “the territories we’ve liberated” or “the ancestral lands we’ve reclaiming.” He strongly hints that for Russia, the war is meaningless (“we’re fighting against ourselves”) and offers a peculiar rationale for fighting on:
We’re not the ones who came up with this special operation. But we saluted and said: If our village has got itself into a brawl, if we’ve gone off to bust some shit with the neighbors, then we’ve got to keep brawling to the end.
4. Prigozhin wants to oust Putin—with the backing of powerful supporters within the Russian elites—and become a ruthless dictator presiding over total war.
Such a view is embraced by expat journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov, among others. But Nevzorov sees Prigozhin as a genuine, unhinged fascist. Again, see above for contradictory evidence.
5. Prigozhin is a pragmatist in war hawk’s clothing, a front man for an elite faction of oligarchs and FSB officers who want to end the war.
This intriguing theory has been recently floated by Moscow-based political scientist Kirill Rogov, Hudson Institute fellow Andrei Piontkovsky, and Ukrainian TV journalist Dmitry Gordon (who takes this idea a step further to suggest that Prigozhin may be working with, and for, Western intelligence agencies). In this view, Prigozhin’s task is to prepare the pro-war portion of Russian society for, in Piontkovsky’s words, “the inevitability of capitulation”—and his talk about total dedication to victory amounts to reverse psychology: Who wants to “live like North Korea” for an indefinite period of time and sacrifice countless lives in a stupid war just because an honor code requires finishing a brawl?
A conspiracy theory? Sure. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds, especially when you consider that Prigozhin is fundamentally a trickster.
Perhaps the real explanation for the Prigozhin enigma is that “Putin’s chef” wants to hedge his bets and come out ahead—and alive—no matter what happens. He thinks Putin is down but not out; this may explain his backpedaling after the “happy grandpa” comment, which he now says was aimed at Gerasimov. If Putin survives, Prigozhin can claim that he was always loyal and that his blunt language was meant to tell his patron harsh but vital truths. If the regime falls, he can ally himself either with the war hawks or with the moderate pragmatists depending on who’s winning. (Rebranding as a moderate would be quite a challenge for a de facto mass murderer, but Prigozhin may bank on being useful enough to persuade people to move on.) And if Russia collapses into Mad Max-like chaos—an analogy Prigozhin invoked in another recent interview—a man with a private army has a pretty good chance of making it as a warlord.
WHATEVER PRIGOZHIN’S REAL agenda may be, his behavior after the fall of Bakhmut illustrates both his canny strategizing and his ambitions. Even as he announced victory, he seemed to be setting up a new narrative in which regular Russian forces would be blamed for throwing that victory away—in which case, he remarked in the Dolgov interview, “the people in charge should shoot themselves.” As Wagner’s withdrawal began, he trolled the army with a new video clip introducing two “Wagnerites” as “key” fighters who would stay behind to help hold off the Ukrainians: a scrawny gray-bearded older man who looked exhausted and a young man, with the call sign “Bieber,” who looked like a scared teenager.
After returning to Russia from Ukraine, Prigozhin embarked on a tour of several cities including Yekaterinburg and Krasnodar, where he gave interviews, held press conferences, and squabbled with local officials. He predicted that with total mobilization of the population and economy, Russia could take Donbas in two years and “reach” Kyiv in three or four. (Total war propaganda? Reverse psychology? You decide.) He demanded trials for those guilty of “genocide” toward the Russian people—not Ukrainians, but “high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Defense.” He predicted “new dustups on Russian territory.” He slammed censorship and asserted that he was speaking out at his own risk “because someone has to tell the truth.” He accused the Russian army of mining Wagner’s exit routes from Bakhmut and of losing ground on the city’s outskirts. He has also offered to protect the Belgorod region from incursions by Ukraine-aligned Russian militants—and to parley with the militants in lieu of Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. And, as the Ukrainian counteroffensive seemed to get under way, Prigozhin mocked Russian defense ministry claims of heavy casualties inflicted on the Ukrainians as “something from the realm of ass-backwards fantasy,” noting that if you added up all the official figures from the ministry’s spokesman, “I think we’ve already destroyed all of Planet Earth five times over.”
IN FICTION, PRIGOZHIN WOULD be a fascinating character: a mashup of Better Call Saul’s Saul Goodman, a James Bond villain, and Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones, with a bloody sledgehammer for a sigil in lieu of Bolton’s skinned man. In real life, Prigozhin may be entertaining in his own awful way. (He is certainly full of surprises, including a friendship with the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.) But he is also part of a horrific war waged by a brutal dictatorship, a ruthless amoralist who profits from death, suffering, and destruction. In a just world, he would end his days in prison as a war criminal.
In the real world—who knows? Putin, or any one of the many people the “chef” has crossed, could take him out. He could resume his role as a Putin henchman, or pursue his own path as either a hawk or a pragmatist. He could become a popular politician—so far, only four percent of Russians name him in an open-ended question about public figures they trust, but in turbulent times, fortunes can change quickly. He could be a contender in a violent struggle for power in a post-collapse Mad Max-like Russia, or hightail it to Africa to retire on his ill-gotten wealth.
As Russian-born Deutsche Welle columnist Konstantin von Eggert recently noted, the very fact that a Prigozhin can emerge on the Russian political scene as an important figure—even a potential Putin rival!—is both a sign of a system in crisis and a catalyst for deepening that crisis by conveying the message that things are out of control. More than three decades ago, Prigozhin’s career began with the collapse of the USSR. Who know where it will go with the collapse of Putin regime?
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