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A shadowy paramilitary outfit is making gains for Russia in eastern Ukraine — and, in the process, apparently exacerbating tensions back in Moscow, where military chiefs are hesitant to give credit to the influential Kremlin insider responsible for the effort.
The Wagner Group, as the militia is known, is operated by the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Frustrated by months of military setbacks, Putin tacitly allowed Prigozhin last year to recruit soldiers for the Wagner Group from prisons, offering them freedom in exchange for service.
The recent military successes of Wagner fighters have stoked suspicions that Prigozhin is hoping to assert himself politically at a time when few other Kremlin advisers can credibly point to victories of their own.
To be sure, Prigozhin’s successes are modest. But as far as the Kremlin is concerned, at least they are not defeats that have to be explained away with convoluted and unconvincing conspiracy theories by state television propagandists.
In recent days, the Wagner Group appears to have taken the village of Soledar, north of the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.
“Incremental progress” in the Bakhmut area has come “at a great cost,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News at a press briefing Wednesday. But considering that Russia had expected to conquer the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in a matter of days when it first invaded in February last year, any progress at all is significant.
Although the Wagner Group has long operated in Syria and Africa, where it bolsters despotic regimes, its commitment to Ukraine appears to signal an acknowledgment that traditional means of waging war have failed, if largely because Russia’s moribund military has been in desperate need of reform for decades.
Both Prigozhin and the Wagner Group were sanctioned by the U.S. and European governments last spring, with the State Department accusing him of forging “a trail of lies and human rights abuses.”
The Wagner Group is beholden neither to Kremlin bureaucracy nor to history. But by registering as a publicly traded company earlier this week, Prigozhin appears to be seeking official recognition for his army of irregulars.
“It’s a brutal fight that he is waging,” Kirby said of Prigozhin, describing the Wagner Group’s offensive as part of an “extravagant effort to increase his influence with the Kremlin.” He also suggested that Prigozhin’s interest in Soledar was not purely strategic, as the town is home to enormous salt and gypsum mines. Such a conflation of interests would not be new: In Sudan, the Wagner Group plundered a gold mine while suppressing democratic dissent.
A native of St. Petersburg like Putin, the 61-year-old Prigozhin is a restaurateur and caterer who started out selling hot dogs. He earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” for the bevy of government catering contracts, including for schools and the military, that eventually came his way.
A pioneer of information warfare, he started the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll farm that U.S. intelligence officials believe interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin recently owned up — proudly — to that feat. Though himself a likely billionaire, Prigozhin has little in common with the oligarchs who support Putin but see the Ukraine war as an unseemly distraction from lives of leisure in London or New York. Sarcastic and profane, Prigozhin recalls an earlier, less polished style of political leadership that may appeal to older Russians.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has all but disappeared from view, but Prigozhin has eagerly courted public attention. Last November, after a Wagner Group defector was executed with a sledgehammer, Prigozhin adapted the tool as a kind of symbol, even sending one to members of the European Parliament, its handle smeared with fake blood, after an effort there to brand the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, Prigozhin similarly threatened supposed traitors within Russia — including, he suggested, within Putin’s own administration — who he predicted would try to flee to the United States: “They won’t take you in,” he warned. “And then you will come to us, where Wagner’s sledgehammer will already be waiting for you.”
(When asked for an interview last year, representatives for Prigozhin’s Concord Group told Yahoo News that Prigozhin would only accede to the request if Yahoo News sent a reporter to St. Petersburg and also brought colleagues from major American outlets.)
Himself hardened by a nine-year prison sentence handed down in 1981 by Soviet authorities for a range of crimes — these included, according to court documents, theft, robbery and at least one assault — Prigozhin spent much of the fall of 2022 in Russian prisons recruiting inmates for the Wagner Group. He spoke to them in frank, unadorned terms about what they could expect if they agreed to serve in Ukraine.
“If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will execute you,” he warns in one such recording. Disseminated online, the footage of Prigozhin’s unusual efforts attracted outrage in the West, but also seemed to indicate that he was willing to risk a personal involvement that other Kremlin officials simply would not undertake.
In Foreign Policy magazine, two Eurasia experts, Peter Rough and Can Kasapoglu, predicted that Prigozhin was making a “power play” intended specifically to challenge Shoigu’s leadership of the military,
Prigozhin ultimately managed to recruit an estimated 40,000 prisoners into the Wagner Group. They were deployed late last year in the Bakhmut region, where Russia has been concentrating its attacks. A senior Pentagon official acknowledged in mid-December that the fighting around Bakhmut had become “very tough,” in part thanks to the ragtag Wagner forces.
The capture of Soledar appears to be the fruit of Prigozhin’s efforts, but that effort is predicated on a disregard for human life that most Western military leaders would simply not countenance. “They continue to throw body after body into this effort,” Kirby said of the Russian advances around Soledar, which he assessed as having been “largely driven” by the Wagner Group.
Last week, credit for Soledar became a point of contention between Prigozhin and the Kremlin, which tried to downplay the Wagner Group’s role, claiming that regular forces were responsible for taking the town. The ensuing disagreement between Prigozhin and the Kremlin played out publicly, in contrast to most Kremlin disputes, which are customarily conducted behind the citadel’s soaring red walls.
“We believe that those tensions remain,” Kirby told Yahoo News, adding that the “rift” between Prigozhin and officials like Shoigu “has not healed.”
With his profile elevated, Prigozhin has become the subject of inevitable political speculation, especially since Putin’s own future — as well as his health — appears more uncertain today than it has been in years.
“Prigozhin, or anyone else for that matter, dare not raise the question of a post-Putin Russia for obvious reasons, but it’s safe to assume that the scenario has crossed his mind,” Rajan Menon, a senior scholar at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C., policy center, told Yahoo News.
Prigozhin is hardly the first prominent Russian to see the invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity for advancement. But he may be among the more politically skilled. “He certainly hopes Wagner’s success will boost his standing with Putin, but the risk is that he may stoke Putin’s suspicions if he gets too much political attention in the public space — and that won’t work well for him,” Menon wrote to Yahoo News in an email.
Whatever his ambitions, Prigozhin’s influence is sustained by the lives of wayward Russians who form the wave upon wave of fighters whose sheer persistence is meant to exhaust Ukraine’s defenders.
Still, given the infamous brutality of Russian prisons, the mere promise of freedom may be enough to entice more recruits. As long as the Wagner Group continues to muster new forces, Prigozhin's influence with a Kremlin hungry for victories is bound to increase.
One recent clip posted to social media shows Prigozhin addressing former prisoners who had fulfilled their military service and were preparing to head home.
“I told you I needed your criminal talents to kill the enemy in war,” Prigozhin says in the footage, which serves as a kind of recruiting video for the Wagner Group. “Now, criminal talents are no longer needed.”
He then tells the outgoing soldiers who surround him that they should do all they can to avoid returning to prison.
“Try to be a little more careful,” Prigozhin says.