Russian President Vladimir Putin has long profited from the actions of Wagner’s mercenary group, analysts say, but a defection led by its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has brought the Russian strongman challenge, which could irreparably damage his authority.
During his decade-long existence, Wagner’s operations in Africa, Syria and eastern Ukraine served Putin’s political interests, and the president seemed to relish rather than fear the internal rivalry his success created.
But now the group, encouraged by Putin, has turned against him.
Wagner’s chief executive, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once viewed as a close ally and dubbed “Putin’s chef” for past Kremlin catering contracts rather than culinary prowess, has now begun Public defiance.
The speed and severity of Putin’s address to the nation after Prigorzhin said his forces had taken control of a military command center and base in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don showed how seriously he took the threat.
While the Russian government insists that the military may be able to suppress the rebellion, and even Wagner, the crisis threatens to permanently damage Putin, who for the past two and a half years has prided himself on standing in an undisputed vertical. power structure.
Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the political analysis firm R. Politik, said on her Telegram channel that “Putin’s clear position is to suppress the insurgency. And it’s tough,” she believes Prigo Ren is “doomed”, even if it may take “a long time”. It’s time” to knock him down.
But she added: “There are many people within the elite who will blame Putin themselves for the extent to which it has come to pass and for the president not responding properly in time. So the whole story is also a blow to Putin’s position.”
The Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence update that “the loyalty of the Russian security forces … will be key to how the crisis develops.”
– “useful for Putin” –
Wagner’s troops played a major role in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, taking on the most dangerous front-line work as the regular army appeared to falter while sustaining what Western sources describe as massive losses.
“For a long time, Prigozhin was allowed to attack the elite because he was useful on the front lines, and also somewhat useful to Putin himself,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center for Russia in Eurasia.
But the war also emboldened Prigozhin, who for the first time publicly acknowledged that he founded the group after years of denials, and openly recruited new members in Russian prisoner-of-war camps.
He also launched brazen verbal attacks on the Russian Ministry of Defense.
His gesture was initially seen as a boost to the Kremlin’s war effort but has since been seen as a rare public challenge to Putin, who appears to have distanced himself from the group and has never had a public meeting with Prigozhin during the conflict .
Prigozhin has developed a personal vendetta against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is widely seen as one of Putin’s few personal friends among Russia’s elite and who hosted the president on holiday in his home region of southern Siberia.
Banov argues that the moment Prigozhin decided to “cross the line” was on June 13, when Putin announced that mercenary groups like Wagner must come under the control of the Ministry of Defense, which mercenary bosses have long opposed. a little.
In Putin’s icy speech on Saturday, he explicitly did not mention Prigozhin by name, a tactic he also used when referring to jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
– “Frankenstein’s Monster” –
James Nixy, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the British think tank Chatham House, described Prigorzhin as a “kind of Frankenstein-like monster” who may have “at some point gained permission … to shock the Russian military , enabling it to fight more effectively”. “
“However, this is far beyond what Putin now envisages,” he told AFP.
While Prigozhin did not have the “manpower, troops or support” to take Moscow, let alone the entire country, it was still “the first serious challenge to Putin’s authority in 24 years of rule.”
Prigozhin’s actions stand in stark contrast to Ramzan Kadyrov, a strongman in Russia’s southern Chechnya region who has also created his own private militia but remains steadfastly loyal to the Kremlin.
He has vowed to send Chechen troops to quell the insurgency, saying “we are ready to take drastic measures” if “drastic measures are required”.
The famous French political scientist Anna Colin Lebedev said: “Moscow has every chance to regain control.”
“But this unprecedented situation confirms to elites that the era of stability is over and that the state we thought of as omnipotent is flawed. The seat of power is a little more crumbling today than it was yesterday,” she said.