Yevgeny Prigozhin on Saturday delivered Vladimir Putin one of the few battlefield victories of the president’s 15-month war in Ukraine.
Even then, Russia’s most powerful mercenary could not resist breaking the taboos of Putin’s tightly controlled political system.
Holding a Russian flag and with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, Prigozhin announced the fall of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut surrounded by heavily armed mercenaries, the black standards of his Wagner group and charred ruins where tens of thousands have perished.
“Thank you to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who gave us this opportunity and the high honour of defending our motherland,” said Prigozhin, praising his private army of convicts, soldiers and spies for 224 days of deadly house-to-house fighting.
He then launched into his favourite rant: the alleged treachery of Putin’s top brass, in particular Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
“Some day they will answer …for their evil deeds,” he said. “We have a list of all of those who helped us and all of those who actively opposed us and basically helped the enemy.”
Such words are dangerous in Putin’s Russia, where public criticism from within the system of the war, and of Putin’s team, is not tolerated – unless, of course, one has tacit approval from the president’s inner circle.
Prigozhin is not directly challenging Putin but rather playing a jester role and acting with the approval of those dismayed by the military’s conduct of the war, officials, diplomats and analysts told Reuters.
His impertinence, though, shows the strain that the war – a word he uses in defiance of a Kremlin ban – has had on Putin’s 23-year-old political system. It has also raised questions about Prigozhin’s own future.
“There is a lot of mystery about what Prigozhin is doing,” Sergey Radchenko, a historian of the Cold War at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Reuters. “What puzzles me is the impression this projects both in the West and inside Russia.”
“The image of increasing chaos in Russia’s military leadership, an image of infighting, an image of Putin’s aloofness or even of Putin’s weakness,” he said. “Prigozhin would not make this slip accidentally.”
Prigozhin, the Kremlin and the defence ministry did not respond to requests seeking comment.
The defence ministry casts Wagner as an “assault squad”, and Shoigu and Gerasimov have not publicly commented on Prigozhin’s insults.
In Prigozhin’s most memorable video, on May 5, he showed a field of dead Wagner mercenaries who he said had perished due to a lack of munitions caused by Shoigu and Gerasimov.
“Shoigu, Gerasimov – where is the fucking ammunition? Look at them (the dead mercenaries) you bitches,” he said. “These are someone’s fucking fathers, someone’s sons.”
Between the swear words, Prigozhin artfully spliced in deeper criticism: soldiers were running from the front while the Russian people were facing destruction by a venal military elite more interested in luxury and intrigue than the battlefield.
On Russia’s most sacred war anniversary, he cautioned against “fucking showing off” on Red Square just as Shoigu and Putin attended a pared-down parade marking the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.
He also quipped about an unidentified “happy grandfather” who could turn out to be a “complete dickhead”.
Prigozhin “seems, out of desperation, frustration and the love of his own voice, to be slipping from outrageous but understandable cries for help and attention into self destructiveness,” said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Prigozhin would make a weakish rebel, though, with an armed force without its own independent logistic capacity.”
A Russian source who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said Prigozhin “represents one of the sides” in a struggle within the Putin system.
Since Putin rose to power in 1999, the former KGB lieutenant colonel has crafted a rigid, if often chaotic, system in which public criticism is not tolerated.
In a sign of just how far Prigozhin is perceived to have breached those rules, state television ignored the fall of Bakhmut for 20 hours.
It led its broadcast with a defence ministry briefing about Russian strikes in Ukraine and aired a lengthy report about a tango festival in Moscow.
“In our country, there are two realities: the real one and the one shown on television,” Prigozhin said.
It took the Kremlin 10 hours to release a terse 36-word statement congratulating Wagner and armed forces units for “liberating” Artyomovsk, the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut used by Russia. It did not name Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said he would hand over Bakhmut to the Russian army by June 1, and rebase his forces to camps in the rear until needed again.
“I believe people from within Putin’s inner circle are behind him – there is no doubt about it,” said Igor Girkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who helped Russia annex Crimea in 2014 and then organise pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine.
“The public controversy between Prigozhin and the silent Defence Ministry is the result of contradictions that have come out within the ruling clan. This is the beginning of the struggle for life after Putin.”
With an election looming in March 2024, it is unclear whether the president will tolerate such a publicly visible struggle for long.
“Unless Putin does something it will show his weakness,” said another Western diplomat. “Prigozhin is not indispensable but he can useful in a very brutal kind of way.”