Wagner Chief Prigozhin’s Lingering Popularity a Challenge for Putin

REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
A view shows a portrait of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift memorial in Moscow, Russia August 24, 2023.

Russians mourning the death of Wagner chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin have set up makeshift memorials in nearly two dozen cities across Russia and occupied Ukraine in recent days, a sign of the commander’s lingering popularity and potential challenge for President Vladimir Putin amid divisions within the elite and in the military over the conduct of the war.

Prigozhin and other top Wagner leaders were killed after his Embraer business jet crashed Wednesday evening northwest of Moscow, just two months after Putin branded him a traitor for leading a short-lived rebellion against Russia’s military in June. Russia’s Investigative Committee in a statement Sunday confirmed the death of the Prigozhin, and the other nine people listed on the flight manifest, after conducting DNA testing on the victims’ bodies.

The memorials – while not a national outpouring of shock and grief – nonetheless showed Prigozhin’s support across Russia in hard line pro-war circles, and highlighted the Kremlin’s delicate task of managing potential anger among his supporters, with many in Russia’s elite convinced Prigozhin’s presumed death was an assassination ordered by the Kremlin.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has strongly denied speculation of Kremlin involvement as “all lies.”

Russian analyst and independent journalist Dmitry Kolezev, who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, said the Kremlin’s challenge was managing the anger of Prigozhin and Wagner supporters, including junior and mid-level military officers.

“Prigozhin, despite declaring loyalty to Putin, put his regime in jeopardy and showed his weakness for which he received the inevitable punishment. I think the elites understood this signal very well,” he said.

“At the same time, there is a broader audience of military activists, supporters of the Wagner PMC and Wagner veterans, among whom there is a cult of Prigozhin,” Kolezev said. “Putin needs to prevent these people from becoming his opponents and keep them from possible radical actions, by paying tribute to Prigozhin and offering an alternative version of his death.”

That’s why Putin praised Prigozhin on Thursday as a “talented person” who “achieved the necessary results” but “made mistakes,” in a reference to the mutiny, he said.

The memorials extolling the Wagner leader came despite a concerted Kremlin propaganda campaign in the wake of the mutiny to tarnish Prigozhin as a greedy criminal and traitor to Russia, an effort that curbed Prigozhin’s runaway approval rating, which reached 58 percent the week before the rebellion, according to independent opinion pollsters Levada Center.

People laid flowers, photographs with the words “Hero of Russia,” Wagner flags and badges, candles, religious pictures, and even a violin, a symbol of the mercenary group that called itself “The Orchestra,” and its members “musicians.” Many wore Wagner camouflage with their faces covered, or black shirts with Wagner’s grinning skull logo.

Prigozhin inspired loyalty in his men because they perceived him as standing up for them against intransigent military bureaucrats, despite the brutally high casualty rates in Wagner, particularly among ex-convict fighters, and widespread allegations that those who fled the battle were often executed.

One Wagner fighter from St. Petersburg, Pavel Shabrin, penned a poem about Prigozhin with the words, “He was with us at the front: in the trenches, in dugouts. He knew our problems and rejoiced with us. He slept in tents and ate porridge from a knife and put candles for the dead in front of the icons.”

Prigozhin refused to smile and flatter the room, he wrote, and “with every word, he cut the air like a whip.”

During the war, Prigozhin grew his popularity with salty, brutally direct videos recorded near the front lines – some of them apparently in Bakhmut – as explosions blasted nearby, visiting his men in underground bunkers in the war zone. As Russia’s war effort faltered, he emerged for many as a trusted truth-teller, one of the few prominent figures willing to defy Russia’s laws against discrediting the military, by exposing the military failures and steep casualties.

On two separate days, he displayed dozens of fresh corpses of Wagner men killed in battle in Bakhmut, posted on videos where he screamed obscenities at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of treason and demanding more ammunition.

The families of Wagner soldiers expressed their grief and loyalty on Telegram group chats in recent days and worried about whether they would get the payments and benefits they were owed. Prigozhin had long been under U.S. sanctions and his logistics and management boss, Valery Chekalov, was blacklisted by the Treasury Department in July. He was also on the plane.

“To be a warrior is to live forever!” wrote the sister of a deceased Wagner fighter. “To me personally, he is a Man with a capital letter, who won the fight first against himself, and who created the Wagner PMC, undoubtedly the most combat-ready army in the world, which has become a real family for many guys! A real Patriot of Russia, who loves the Motherland and who hated the countless hordes of bureaucracy, and who unfortunately was never able to break through it!” She wished him a “bright and eternal memory.”

Another woman expressed her fears for the uncertain survival of Wagner fighters in the future without Prigozhin’s protection and the likelihood they would be forced to join mercenary groups controlled by the Ministry of Defense or to sign up as volunteer soldiers.

“Without the leadership qualities, without the connections, without the authority of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who will protect the guys from signing contracts with the Defense Ministry?” she wrote. “And who will ensure their return home?”

In Moscow, people left tributes at the Church of Saint Maxim the Blessed on Varvarka Street, and in Prigozhin’s home city of St. Petersburg, they left tributes at his business center and at a cafe associated with him.

State Duma deputy, Vasily Vlasov, of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, proposed renaming Zolnaya Street in St. Petersburg, where his office center is located, in Prigozhin’s honor.

Prigozhin, 62, met Putin, a former KGB officer working in the office of the mayor, in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, soon after Prigozhin’s 1990 release from prison where he served nine years of a 13-year sentence for theft, fraud and robbery, according to Russian media.

Prominent Russians chimed in with public eulogies, taking their cue from Putin’s praise. Nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin called him the “best of men.” Tula governor, Alexei Dyumin, former head of Putin’s security who knew Prigozhin well, called him a “true patriot, a determined and fearless man,” who was not a traitor.

Sergei Mironov, head of political party A Just Russia For Truth, said Prigozhin upset many people, but warned that “the enemies of Russia will pay hard for the death of the heroes.”

According to analysts, many in Russia’s elite are convinced Prigozhin’s death was an assassination ordered by Putin. Paris-based Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said the public comments of prominent figures followed Putin’s lead – but also indicated their unease about the incident.

“All this is, of course, very subjective. But the feelings of people like Dyumin can now be understood: they believe that such figures as Prigozhin, despite their mistakes, do not deserve such a death,” she wrote on Telegram.

Kolezev, the analyst, said Dyumin’s comments indicated divisions within the elites over Prigozhin’s “punishment.” He said Dyumin, apparently positioning himself to be a future defense minister, needed to secure the loyalty of junior and mid-level officers, “and they are likely to perceive Prigozhin’s murder negatively.”

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson voiced his conviction that Putin ordered Prigozhin’s assassination, in a column in the Daily Mail, the bluntest statement about the incident from any Western politician so far.

“As we watch the chilling footage of that plane spiraling to earth, we are witnessing something historic. This is the violent liquidation – on TV – of his enemies by an existing head of state. I cannot think of another example of such ostentatious and uninhibited savagery by a world leader – not in our lifetimes,” wrote Johnson, a staunch supporter of Ukraine as prime minister. He said the world was “intended to know” that Putin was responsible.

Western analysts maintain the true cause of the crash may never be known, given Russia’s politicized investigations system. Russian state-owned and pro-Kremlin media have focused on the official investigation into the accident, speculating that the plane was destroyed by Ukrainian saboteurs or foreign intelligence agents.

The pro-Kremlin tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Prigozhin’s jet had been standing in the open and was repaired shortly before the fatal flight. It reported that two potential buyers for Prigozhin’s jet had been onboard for an hour shortly before it departed.

Russia has made few gains in the war since Wagner conquered Bakhmut in May, and recent drone strikes on the capital, Moscow, have brought the war home to Muscovites. Early on Saturday, Russian air defenses shot down a drone near the capital, according to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. The Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo and Domodyedovo airports were all closed for several hours overnight.

Extreme-right Russian paramilitary group Rusich, which has also been fighting in Ukraine, announced late Friday it was pulling its fighters out of the Ukraine war, after a prominent member, Yan Petrovsky, was arrested in Finland, where he may be extradited to Ukraine for trial on charges of participating in a terrorist group. Rusich claimed that Russian officials had done little to help Petrovsky.

“If a country cannot protect its citizens, then why should citizens protect the country?” the group posted on Telegram.