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Could Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin replace Vladimir Putin as Russia's next president?

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin on July 4, 2017.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin on July 4, 2017. Copyright Sergei Ilnitsky/AP
Copyright Sergei Ilnitsky/AP
By Joshua Askew
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Analysts say Prigozhin might - or might not - want Russia's top job: but describe him as entrepreneurial, opportunistic and ruthless.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin knows how to cause a stir.

Hitting the headlines almost daily for his spicy comments about the Ukraine war, the notorious leader of Russia's Wagner Group is allegedly eyeing up political power.

Some even suggest he wants to become president.

“Prigozhin is a deeply disreputable character,” Professor Mark Galeotti, an analyst of Russian politics, told Euronews. “This is a man who has risen by doing whatever Putin and the Kremlin want – and obviously doing very well for himself in the process.”

Even before he sent his mercenary army into some of Ukraine’s grittiest battles, Prigozhin ran a troll farm meddling in US elections – landing him in hot water with the FBI – and used his private militia fighters for shady business across the African continent.

His latest gambit is reportedly seizing a political party in Russia, which analysts at the Insitute for the Study of War warn could trigger “fractionalisation within the Kremlin”.

“It’s clear he’s trying to position himself to play a public role in Russian politics,” said Mark Beissinger, Professor of Politics at Princeton University. “There is a question that is increasingly hanging over Russian politics: What will happen after Putin.”

“Putin is not in danger of being overthrown,” he continued. “But he is getting older, and as dictators age, those with ambitions try to position themselves to potentially fill the gap left by the leader’s death.”

‘Prigozhin has no friends, no allies’

Prigozhin’s political power rests on Wagner – with no other Russian politician commanding such military force – and his massive fortune was "accrued protecting weak African regimes in exchange for their gold mines", points out Beissinger, though he doubted the mercenary would ever take Putin on directly.

Buoyed by alleged successes in Ukraine, Prigozhin has certainly created a storm within Russian politics. 

He has picked fights with the governor of St. Petersburg and attacked the military establishment over their campaign against Kyiv – something that has landed many other Russians in prison.

In March, he openly defied the Kremlin’s narrative that it was fighting Nazis in Ukraine, a false argument it has used repeatedly to justify the invasion, and over the weekend seemingly called on the fighting to stop.

“Prigozhin is... someone who can figure out ways to work the system, but always to some extent on the edge of that system, on the boundaries of what is acceptable, and pushing those boundaries,” Beissinger said.

“He does not identify with the oligarchic elite but is an outsider to it, as wealthy as he now is.”

Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
A mural that reads: Wagner Group - Russian knights" vandalised with paint on a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 13, 2023.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Believed to hail from a working-class background, Prigozhin is thought to have spent nine years in prison for theft, as the Soviet Union unravelled during the 1980s. 

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Prigozhin is tolerated because he is “useful to Putin”, explained Beissinger. "He provides services to the state during the war that the military is unable to provide.” 

As ruthless as they are brutal, Wagner mercenaries have been accused of engaging in widespread human rights abuses around the world – something few governments would want their fingerprints on.

“It could all easily fall apart quite quickly for him,” Beissinger said. “But he also might be able to parlay that into influence should he strike up the right alliances.”

‘Vendettas are his hobby’

Analyst Galeotti was more sceptical.

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“I see no signs of any kind of political ambitions,” he told Euronews. “All this talk that he could be the next president or defence minister is absolute rubbish.”

“It's got no basis in reality.”

Even before they were sent into the Bakhmut “meat grinder” in southern Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries numbered 30,000 compared to the 800,000-odd active personnel in the conventional army. Plus they are hugely dependent on the Russian military for ammunition.

This makes Prigozhin a “relative minnow”, says Galeotti, pointing out that he is also heavily reliant on government contracts, and needs Putin’s permission to operate the mercenary group, since they are technically illegal under Russian law.

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“Even if he was allowed greater power, he would be an instrument of the Kremlin, rather than actually have any real autonomy,” said Galeotti.

Still, he added: “I think that it's always dangerous to rule Prigozhin out. He is entrepreneurial. He's opportunistic, and he's ruthless. He will do whatever it takes.”

Progozhin's Concord Catering company won billion-dollar contracts to feed Russia's schools and military and host the Kremlin's banquets, widely believed to be where he first got access to Putin’s ear - and where he picked up the alleged nickname "Putin's chef."

Misha Japaridze/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia in Nov. 11, 2011.Misha Japaridze/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.

A bigger obstacle to Progozhin's alleged political schemes may be Progozhin himself.

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“Not appreciating that he was playing with the big boys”, Galeotti suggested the “thuggish ex-con” may have gone too far "throwing his weight around" and "pouring vitriol" on Russia's power brokers.

“This is a man with a very strong streak of malice, I'm tempted to say that vendettas are his main hobby.” 

Some claim last month’s killing of prominent military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in a bomb blast was a warning to Prigozhin, as the pair were allies and it happened in a cafe he once owned. However, there are many other theories, such as Ukraine being behind the explosion. 

“Progozhin overplayed his hand,” says Galeotti. “Last year he was very much ascendant because the Russian military desperately needed more manpower.”

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“Ever since the partial mobilisation the Russian military has 300,000 more troops and Wagner is much less valuable”.

So what then is behind the rumours?

Besides a “self-feeding media storm”, Galeotti says one of the main sources of speculation about Prizoghin’s so-called political ambitions is that he is very outspoken.

His political enemies are also “very happy” to encourage this idea to drive a wedge between him and Putin, he added.

"It's a very dangerous thing in the current environment to be talked about as someone who wants to be the next president."

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Since the start of the Ukraine war, an ever-increasing number of oligarchs and Putin critics have been found dead, raising questions if they are too common to be coincidental.

Some accidentally fell from hospital windows according to Russian news agencies, while others tripped down several flights of stairs.

AP/AP
Three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali, photo supplied by the French military.AP/AP

For Galeotti, speculation and interest in Prigozhin ultimately reflected something perhaps more troubling.

“There’s a horrid fascination with this mercenary force that seems so totally able to ignore the kind of basic norms of civilised behaviour,” he said. “These people make the regular Russian military look like Boy Scouts.”

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Videos have circulated online of Wagner mercenaries executing deserters with sledgehammers, while the force has been accused of rape in Ukraine.

“A lot of people don't really understand Prigozhin,” said Galeotti. “He’s become something of a Rorschach inkblot.”

“If you want to believe that Prigozhin is basically some freewheeling kind of mercenary champion who just does what he wants, then fine. If you want to believe that he's just simply a bloody-handed executioner of what Putin wants, then fine.

“Everyone can have their own personal Prigozhin.”

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