Putin under pressure: the military melodrama between the Wagner group and Russia’s armed forces

Prigozhin Press Service/AP
Prigozhin Press Service/AP

As Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine continues, another rant by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the bombastic chief of the paramilitary Wagner group, has laid bare the power struggle at the top of Russia’s military leadership.

Calling Russian commanders “stupid” and responsible for “criminal orders” last week, Prigozhin questioned whether the military could even defend Russian territory.

Upset with the slow delivery of ammunition, Prigozhin had also filmed himself next to the bodies of Wagner fighters, issuing a tirade at Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and its chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.

“Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are the fucking shells?” Prigozhin demanded.

“Look at them! Look at them!” he fumed, gesturing at the corpses. “You sit in expensive clubs […] your children make YouTube videos […] they [Wagner fighters] died so you could gorge yourselves in your offices!”

Astonishingly, Prigozhin even obliquely took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, referring to the “happy grandfather” who thought the war in Ukraine was proceeding smoothly.

“But what”, Prigozhin speculated, “if it turns out that this grandfather is a complete asshole?” (Some translations have used a different expletive.)

Infighting in plain sight

The infighting between Wagner and Russia’s military has become a soap opera played out in front of a global audience. In the most recent episode, an article in the Washington Post this week suggested Prigozhin had on several occasions made contact with Ukrainian military intelligence.

Citing the Discord Leaks, the story claimed Prigozhin had offered to turn over information about the positions of Russian forces if the Ukrainian military withdrew from the city of Bakhmut, where Wagner fighters have been fighting Ukrainian forces for months.

If the Kremlin accepts that line, Prigozhin will be in serious trouble.

But the deployment of compromising material and misinformation is a common tactic in Eurasia. And while tempers often spill over among Russia’s competing elites, Putin has previously had little trouble reining them in.

However, the fact he now seems unable (or unwilling) to do so with Prigozhin indicates that his ability to control the Kremlin’s fiefdoms isn’t what it used to be. A weakened Putin, who has deliberately placed himself at the heart of the Russian state with no obvious successor, would raise more serious questions about the future of his regime.

Authoritarian governments control their populations in a variety of ways. Most commonly, they use fear – of the state, and of external and internal “enemies” – against which only strong leadership can prevail.

But they also need narratives about success, trading on tales of triumph against foreign or domestic evils. Putin’s Russia has been no exception, repeatedly stretching credibility to claim great successes over Russia’s woke Western foes.

When things go badly, it becomes imperative to punish scapegoats, deflecting blame from the leader. This is what we are witnessing now, with Russia’s armed forces and Wagner attempting to pin culpability on one another.

Yet, just as success has its own momentum, so does failure. That’s evident in the fact that the difficult task of turning around Russia’s military fortunes is rapidly being overshadowed by an enthusiastic search for the guilty.

Read more: Wagner Group: what it would mean for the UK to designate Putin's private army a 'terrorist organisation'

Who will lose the blame game?

Whichever group succeeds in dodging “official” blame depends to a large extent on how influential they are in Russia’s complex vertical power structure, as well as how valuable their chief figureheads are to Putin.

Assessing the relative weight of different Kremlin clans and their leaders is difficult because they are so fluid and opaque. But it is generally accepted that Prigozhin is an outsider. He lacks a broad power base in Moscow, with few friends among the main courtiers – the heads of Security Council ministries and agencies.

And with an estimated 50,000 fighters – a tenfold increase since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – Wagner is dwarfed by Russia’s regular armed forces, as well as the Rosgvardiya (Putin’s personal guard), which has over 300,000 personnel.

That would seemingly make it difficult for Prigozhin to dodge the ire of the Kremlin, much less – as some have speculated – directly challenge Putin himself.

That said, both Wagner and Prigozhin remain important to Putin. For all his alleged enthusiasm for purging his underlings, Putin has actually only rarely discarded those close to him.

Prigozhin’s relationship with Putin dates back to the early 2000s, when his company Concord Catering became the Kremlin’s partner-of-choice for state banquets. Prigozhin later set up the Internet Research Agency, the infamous troll factory designed to promote Russian misinformation and interfere in elections, especially after Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow in 2011. Misha Japaridze/AP
Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow in 2011. Misha Japaridze/AP

Prigozhin established the Wagner private military company in 2014, together with the neo-Nazi Dmitry Utkin, a former commander in Russia’s military intelligence special forces.

From the outset, it was virtually indistinguishable from an organ of the Russian state. Its fighters trained at Russian Defence Ministry bases, its best personnel were veterans of the Russian armed forces and it had a code of honour based on promoting Russian interests everywhere.

By 2022, Wagner had established itself in the Global South, offering security, military training and political propaganda in exchange for lucrative contracts in energy infrastructure, resources and precious metals. And since the invasion of Ukraine, Wagner’s footprint has grown. It’s now active in Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, Mali, Cameroon and Madagascar, among others.

Reflecting the ruthless martial culture Putin has encouraged in Russia, Prigozhin has proven himself eager to glorify violence. This was demonstrated by his approving reaction to a brutal video of a Wagner deserter in Ukraine being executed with a sledgehammer. Later, in November 2022, Prigozhin sent a sledgehammer smeared in fake blood to the European Parliament in response to calls for Wagner be placed on Europe’s list of terrorist groups.

However, Prigozhin ultimately remains beholden to the Russian military, which he relies upon to supply Wagner fighters in Ukraine.

Putin’s recent appointment of General Sergei Surovikin as liaison between Wagner and Russia’s armed forces underscores that point – as a military officer, Surovikin can simply delay sending him ammunition, or cease doing so altogether.

The military can also counteract the more lucrative contracts offered by Wagner by restricting his access to new fighters.

This leverage enjoyed by the military seems to have made Prigozhin even more vocal in his criticism of its leadership. It suggests the infighting is also set to continue.

Putin’s paradox

Russia’s ongoing military melodrama is dangerous for the Kremlin. Put simply, it’s becoming harder for Putin to dissociate himself from serious errors of judgement.

It was Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Putin ordered Wagner to achieve a breakthrough in Bakhmut. And ultimately, Putin is responsible for choosing the military leaders to oversee the war effort. With Gerasimov taking over from Surovikin in January, Russia has lost or fired well over a dozen generals since it invaded in February 2022.

Read more: A year on, Russia's war on Ukraine threatens to redraw the map of world politics – and 2023 will be crucial

Like both the Stalinist and Nazi German regimes, which explained away failures as the result of ineptitude subordinates, Russia’s state media has performed complicated contortions in response to Russia’s battlefield failures. Many journalists and military bloggers claimed the purity of Putin’s strategic vision has been let down by military incompetence.

But how can the rot be so wide without Putin having known about it? And if he didn’t, then why was he so disconnected from those responsible for carrying out his orders? That creates a paradox, making him either clueless or careless – or both.

Putin’s advantage is that he retains numerous levers of power over the general population and the elite.

But without a tale of triumph to peddle, he will run out of scapegoats if his security services eventually refuse to be purged. Given the intensity of the unchecked rivalry between them, that may come sooner rather than later.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Matthew Sussex, Australian National University.

Read more:

Matthew Sussex has previously received funding from the Australian Research Council, the Carnegie Foundation, the Lowy Institute, Chatham House and various Australian government agencies.