The maximum mobilization potential of Prigozhin is about 100 thousand people (at least a third of these 100 thousand could potentially be “claimed by the Ministry of Defense”). With the current intensity of the “Wagnerian recycling”, this amount would suffice for 8-9 months. This prospect is perfectly clear to Prigozhin himself, as well as both to the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin . Therefore, the Kremlin has decided to put on hold the political (and not only) future of Prigozhin for at least six months
Yevgeny Prigozhin has become one of the key newsmakers of the Russian-Ukrainian war. In this review, the Ukrainian Institute of the Future gives an account o Prigozhin’s assets, how his media empire works and what are the real political and military prospects of “Putin’s chef”
The specifics of Prigozhin’s activity
Concord and “Putin’s (not) Chef”
Until 2013, Yevgeny Prigozhin was one of the least public figures in Putin’s entourage. The owner of the Concord Group of companies, with a sprawling business profile – from the restaurant business and school meals to mining. He is a “St. Petersburg group” representative and his business at the initial stage (and the media business after 2013) had been actively financed by the “Rossia” bank, owned by the Kovalchuks.
In the late 90s, he opened a number of restaurants, including the New Island, which was popular among the Russian political elite. Later on he began developing the “Concord catering”. And, due to his assosiations with V. Putin, this direction had become very successful. Their customer list includedThe Office of the President of the Russian Federation, Concord caters Kremlin banquets and the events of the law enforcement agencies leadership.
But in addition to the restaurant business, Concord is actively engaged in industrial construction, and the companies associated with the group- in exploration and mining of natural resources.
Political technologist and media magnate
For the first time, Prigozhin’s name came up in the leading media after 2013, when the “Internet Research Agency” appeared in the public sight. Against the backdrop of the changing nature of information consumption (the strengthening of the role of social networks, new media), Vladimir Putin needed a structure capable of performing the task to shape up public opinion on key issues for the Russian government. Traditional channels of information delivery – newspapers, television, radio – did not do the work and the political opponents of Kremlin authorities used Internet resources as a source of influence.
This situation resulted in creation of IRA(Information Research Agency), which was soon referred to as the “troll factory” by a number of journalists and politicians, or “Olginskie trolls” and such like. The specifics of the agency’s work is the promotion of the necessary narratives through new media, creating an illusion of a mass reaction to individuals and their actions, and the defamation campaigns. As well as the constant collection and analysis of data on the behavior of social networks users.
The project, which began as a domestic Russian tool, soon expanded its sphere of interests to the politics of the post-Soviet states (Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states), and, by mid-2014, to the EU and the USA.
With the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war (the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the Donbas), IRA acquires “related” information resources – thematic groups in social networks, “new media”, often posing as regional media from the conflict zones.
In the same year, 2014, on the basis of some of the above-mentioned resources, the IA “Federal News Agency” was created – an information group whose task, among other things, was to promote narratives that at this stage “media with a history and a name.” could not afford to broadcast.
Later on, several online publications were created on the basis of the FAN, including those positioning themselves as “Ukrainian”. Among the latter, we can mention “KyivSMI”, “Kharkiv News Agency” and others. In 2015, they were merged into the Patriot media group, which today includes more than 20 media platforms.
Up until 2019 when the market of Russian social networks and news aggregators began to shift towards monopolization in the hands of one group, the Patriot group worked evenly in all key areas (news aggregators, odnoklassniki, in contact, my world, etc.). As of the year 2020, with the growing popularity of Telegram, a new priority direction has appeared – telegram channels. And already in 2022, the Patriot group had a number of military-oriented TG channels. It was they who formed the basis for the emergence of some of the Russian “war correspondents”. ( but not more than half).
In 2022, Prigozhin dramatically increased his influence on one of the largest Russian information resources – the Komsomolskaya Pravda publishing house, which, in addition to Komsomolka (with it’s own radio station and a TV channel), includes such well-known publications as Va Bank and Express Newspaper.
After the death of Vladimir Sungorkin, who was closer to the security forces in targeting the groups around Putin, the management was finally taken over by the LDV Press holding owned by Sergei Rudnov. He is the son of Putin’s friend Oleg Rudnov, who died in 2015. In addition to KP, Rudnov Jr. has direct ownership of IA Regnum and 10 more platforms and radio stations, as well as a regional TV channel (St. Petersburg).
Prigozhin had been friendly with his father Rudnov Sr., and is on good terms with his son.
It is also important to note that the development of LDV Press and prigozhin media group “Patriot” is financed from one source – Kovalchuk’s Bank “Rossia”.
PMC “Wagner” and “Wagner Group”
Another area of Prigozhin’s activity has been the private military company Wagner or the Wagner Group, which was founded in the Russian Federation at the turn of 2013-14. Unlike other Russian PMCs, for a long time the group did not have a permanent registration (and one name within the Russian Federation) even as a security company. Only in 2022, the Concord opened “PMCS Wagner Center”, with it’s own recruiting station for the private military company .
The recruiting policy is not limited to the territory of the Russian Federation. The group actively recruits mercenaries from the countries of the former USSR, as well as (upon necessity, as support personnel), African and Asian states. Until recently, preference was given to people with military service experience. However, with the expansion of the geography of work and the scope of tasks, the requirements for candidates were significantly reduced already at the turn of 2015-16.
It was the Russian PMCs (including the Wagner Group) that were the main striking force of the Russian Federation at the initial stage of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014 in Donbas. And Prigozhin’s people were able to demonstrate their effectiveness. Both in the battles against the Ukrainian government forces under the guise of “volunteers”, and in the process of fighting uncontrolled (or poorly controlled) groups in the process of creating a management hierarchy on the occupied territories.
According to the usage specification, the Wagner Group mercenaries can be divided into four key groups
1. Instructors and highly qualified specialists. They are used primarily for training fighters who are on long-term contracts. As well as military instructors (Angola, Syria, Libya, CAR, Mozambique) abroad, as personal guards of contractors (for example, the president of the CAR, the leadership of GATIA in Mali)
2. Permanent staff or “veterans”. Well-trained fighters who have experience fighting in several missions. They are used for training beginners, during overseas missions as the backbone of strike groups. Unlike the first group, this one is a larger group of mercenaries, intended for use in combat collisions. They are actively used to protect oil facilities in Libya, gold and diamond mines in Zimbabwe,
3. Experienced fighters on one-action contracts. Fighters who have combat experience, but do not have much experience with PMCs. They are used as a striking force in military and security operations.
4. Rookies are recruited fighters of relatively low qualifications who are hired for short–term contracts and are used in hot spots where there is a need to use a large number of “manpower”. We can refer to these as consumables with a high degree of certainty.
The total number of qualified fighters in the Wagner PMCs is, according to various estimates, from 5 to 10 thousand people. Of which about 1.5 thousand are permanent highly qualified specialists. A wide recruiting campaign to hire low-skilled infantry (the category of “beginners”) brought the number of the structure to 40-50 thousand, including the recruitment of prisoners.
The Wagner PMC, like other similar organizations (not only Russian, but also American, British, etc.) is used to promote the interests of the Russian Federation in regions (or conflicts) where direct participation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is impractical for political or economic reasons. Among their most well – known operations we can mention:
• Following the news about the presence of large reserves of uranium ores in the north of Azawad, the Wagner PMCs agreed to a contract and participates in the civil war in Mali on the side of GATIA (a Tuareg group opposed to the independence of Azawad and cooperating with the central government)
• In Sudan, during the War of Independence of South Sudan and in border conflicts for control of oil fields, the Wagner PMCs was used as a strike force and a group protecting Rosneft assets in the region. It is worth mentioning that the “post-revolutionary” (military) government of Sudan categorically denies the use of militants on its territory.
• In Syria, the Wagner PMCs was used along with regular Russian troops in the civil war on the side of Assad. But with its “specifics” – this military company primarily aimed at controlling the oil fields that Rosneft and Gazprom Neft intended to develop (through shell companies). Some of the highly qualified PMCs specialists are used as instructors for the Syrian government forces.
• In Libya, the use of PMCs is similar in nature to the Syrian operation. Except that there was no regular Russian army in the country. The rest are instructors for the Gen. Haftarah army, participating in combat clashes and protection of oil-producing facilities
• Central African Republic. Today, perhaps, this is one of the most famous contracts of the Wagner PMCs. Moreover, employees of the campaign of all categories are involved in the “work” – including the “core” of highly qualified specialists. Russian mercenaries protect top officials of the state, train special force units of the government army and take direct part in the battles against Muslim rebels. The sphere of “economic” interests of PMCs is diamond deposits, the vicinity of Bakum with deposits of bauxite (uranium), promising oil–bearing areas (exploration is conducted by Russian companies).
• In Madagascar, the Wagner PMCs has been carrying out, so to say two parallel projects: it’s provided instructors for the training of local military personnel within the framework of the agreements of the FSB and the General Staff of the Russian Federation, as well as guarded the political technologists hired by Prigozhin to ensure electoral results for President Andriradzuelin. The second project is the protection of the exploration and production of chromites, which was conducted by Prigozhin’s ferrum Mining (through a joint venture with the Madagascar state company Kraoma Mining). In 2020, the joint venture was reorganized: Russian firms affiliated with Gazprom took the place of Prigozhin’s company.
• In Mozambique, the participation of the fighters of the Wagner PMCs also consisted in training local special forces and ensuring the security of the business of the above–mentioned Ferrum Mining – exploration of titanium ore and bauxite reserves.
• In Venezuela, employees of the Wagner Private security company guarded the premises of the Russian-Venezuelan oil joint ventures, as well as providing personal protection of Rosneft managers and political consultants hired to help the Maduro regime.
• In addition, according to the African ArmedConflictLocation& Event Data Project (ACLED), employees of the Wagner PMCs work as instructors for law enforcement agencies in Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Angola
Transformation of Prigozhin’s role in Ukraine in 2022
Judging by the nature of the military actions, initially the Kremlin did not plan to actively use PMCs as full-fledged units at the front. Such companies were assigned the role of the DRG in the rear of the Ukrainian troops, primarily in large cities. Or the role of mobile groups for quick and targeted operations, ranging from the evacuation of individuals, ending with reconnaissance and storming of objects in the immediate rear of the Ukrainian troops. That is why there was very little information about the fighters of the Wagner PMCs at the front, among the prisoners and killed. But on the other hand, until about May 2022, citizens of post-Soviet countries (including immigrants from Ukraine and Belarus) were actively recruited to work “in small groups”.
However, the need to compensate for the losses of the Russian army at the initial stage of the war led to the fact that the mercenaries of the Wagner Group had been used as infantry formations at the front. There was an attempt to hire “narrow specialists”, even from outside of Russia. We are talking about pilots, tank сrew, gunners, specialists in the field of communications and electronic warfare. However, this recruitment campaign was only partly successful – until the first casualties. Also, in the autumn of 2022, amendments were made to Russian legislation allowing foreigners to be recruited for military service. Therefore, Prigozhin’s structures focused on the infantry formations. The use of PMCs allowed Kremlin to delay the moment of mobilization announcement and falsify the assessment of the real figures of losses of Russian citizens. Besides, hefty army servicemen injury compensations and compensations to families following death in combat made the use of mercenaries cheaper hence more cost effective.
However, closer to autumn, the need to dramatically increase manpower to make up for the losses had become obvious. As a result, the idea of hiring prisoners in exchange for future amnesty and money is being put to practice. This allowed Prigozhin to hire up to 20-25 thousand prisoners from Russian colonies for his structure. About 10 thousand more people were recruited from around the depressed regions of the Russian Federation. Primarily, these are people without a permanent income who have significant credit obligations (mortgages, consumer loans, etc.).
It is important to note that Prigozhin is extremely careful in the use of his PMCs “core” at the front. Qualified experienced fighters often occupy command positions and do not participate in assault operations. Or even work as instructors in training camps.
The second activity of Prigozhin’s structures was information operations aimed at disorganizing Ukrainian society and spreading panic. The resources of the FAN and related groups were mobilized for this campaign. At the initial stage (until mid-March), the Russian Federation had hope for the effectiveness of the remnants of the media system built by Medvedchuk. Therefore, building the infrastructure of Prigozhin’s resources (fake “Ukrainian” groups in Telegram, a network of “military officers”, etc.) began to appear only by mid-March. By mid-summer, a whole network of channels was already working, covering, first of all, events in Ukraine.
Thus, by September 2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin de facto became one of the key figures in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
The Wagner Group in Ukraine and Prigozhin’s Struggle for Subjectivity
An attempt to get out of the role of a simple “subordinate”
The transition of war into a protracted state, the sanctional pressure on the Russian Federation, which weakened the positions of some Russian companies on the world market, created prerequisites for the redistribution of spheres of influence within Putin’s inner circle. So, for example, the Yeltsin family group lost its positions (and has been de-facto completely demolished), the role of the Rosneft group and Sechin personally is declining. Putin’s dissatisfaction with the representatives of the security forces group is becoming more obvious.
All of the above factors have enabled the emergence of points of tension inside the Russian society. On one hand, there is discontent and fear of liberal-minded residents of cities. On the other hand, there is an increase in discontent among radical, imperial–minded Russians. This creates prerequisites for the revision of the Russian party system. The Kremlin needs at least one political project similar to the Rodina party of the early noughties. This would allow channeling the protest sentiments of the radicals. But Putin has no ready candidates for the role of “party leader”.
This is the political landscape where Prigozhin’s game begins. If, taking into account all that has been mentioned above, we evaluate his positioning in the inner circle of the President of the Russian Federation, the most accurate definition would be “a delegate”. Undoubtedly influential and necessary. But used only for “sensitive” missions, which both official structures and individual politicians cannot deal with. It turns out that Prigozhin is called upon to do the “dirty work” and take on all the reputational negativity. At the same time, his position is completely dependant on the demand for such “discreete services” offered and Putin’s favor.
But the temporary “indispensability” in the times of war, the importance of informational operations, as well as the processes of influence redistribution inside Russian elite create a chance for Prigozhin to change his statute. And from this “non-grata” position to transition to a role of either a full participant in one of the Kremlin’s influence groups (ideally, to create your own over time) or the leader of the “party project”.
To this end, Prigozhin begins an active media campaign. The network of “military correspondents”, since the end of July, criticizes the military leadership, emphatically speaks positively about “the work of the “orchestra” (as they call the Wagner group).” Moreover, the latter direction is being unwound gradually, incrementally. Komsomolskaya Pravda adheres to a similar policy, which joined the work 2-3 weeks later.
Naturally, such a “wave of information” worked as a trigger for federal channels:
• The channels of the National Media Group owned by the Kovalchuk Group were the first to react. Here it would be appropriate to recall the role of Bank Rossiya in the creation of media assets of Prigozhin and LDV Group Rudnov.
• Then (by the beginning of September) the state channels managed by the Government of the Russian Federation joined in.
• And finally, the last on the list were the channels of the Gazprom-Media group.
Prigozhin is becoming one of the most public figures in Russian politics. Thanks to this, he, together with Kadyrov, seeks to change the leadership of the “SVO”, promoting General Surovikin, who is close to them.
It is worth mentioning the bonuses that Prigozhin receives from his position of media controller. The Kremlin, frightened by the harsh criticism of the TG channels of the “military commanders”, resorts to the tactics of the “whip” – with a number of owners of the most popular resources, preventive measures are carried out by the FSB. Moreover, the information gets out into the open, for the public scrutiny . Prigozhin, having his own network of “military correspondents” and a group of KP-related resources, avoids such pressure and, as a result, strengthens his position in the Russian segment of Telegram.
This is the layout against which he begins to “test the edges of what is allowed”:
• The public execution of Yevgeny Nuzhin, threats against his critics served, on one hand, as intimidation (or, in the case of radicals, motivation – “let’s catch those traitors”) for part of Russian society. On the other hand, it was a challenge and a demonstration of its political weight to the representatives of Russian elites. For example, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee were obliged to respond to the fact of the execution. The lack of action on the part of Krasnov and Bastrykin was indicative for the rest of the key people in Putin’s close circle.
• Hiring prisoners with the promise (!) of amnesty was a challenge to the already mentioned Igor Krasnov (Prosecutor General) and also to the Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko and the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service Arkady Gostev.
• Simultaneously, they launch a public media attack on the Governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, who has been working with Putin since the mid-90s.
The Kremlin decides to limit Prigozhin’s claims somewhat and puts a stop to most of the conflicts. A picture of the “new reality” is being created in the press. The murder of Nuzhin is presented as a provocation and already on this fact the IC starts an investigation. The information gets out concerning some classified decrees of pardon for the criminals after their service (or injury), as well as a start of a campaign to draw parallels with the “penal battalions” of the period of the Second World War. The conflict with Beglov is forcibly “put on pause”.
But the overall track is becoming obvious. In the situation of discrediting part of the security forces, Prigozhin is trying to embed the PMCs as a full-fledged part of the enforcement structures of the Russian Federation. And thereby become a part (an influential part) of the nomenclature group of security forces surrounding the Russian president.
To implement his plans, he needs a picture of military success. Hence the predominant use of the Wagner PMCs in the Donetsk sector of the front (Bakhmut, Soledar, Avdiivka) is the result of mutual interest of both Prigozhin personally and the military leadership. Due to the availability of “cheap” labor from among the prisoners, the Wagner Group maintains a high intensity of attacks and achieves partial success in the vicinity of Bakhmut. At the same time, Prigozhin is trying to pass off the capture of Soledar (the only success of the Russian side for a long time) as his and only his victory, secured exclusively by the forces of his PMC. Thus, once again opposing himself to the military leadership.
The system’s response.
Prigozhin’s actions and his attempt to challenge several groups of influence at once: The Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for the capture of prisoners), the Ministry of Justice (the FSIN is part of its structure), partly the FSB (controls the activities of organized crime from the point of view of political ties) had to generate a response. Which followed in the form of a reshuffle in the leadership of “SVO” and the nomination of Gerasimov. As well as changes in the media field. The army leadership stressed that the success of the Russian Federation in Soledar belongs not only to Wagnerians. And the key media of the Russian Federation began a discrete departure from the actual advertising of the PMC and its owner. There is no criticism of Prigozhin yet, the materials are rather positive. But the frequency of mentions has decreased by at least two-fold. It is worth a mention that the public “conflict” between Prigozhin and Strelkov (Girkin) is a kind of reaction to the decrease in attention to both these individuals from the media. They are both trying to stay at the TOP of the information agenda.
And, finally, the key is the situation at the front. PMC “Wagner” is suffering enormous losses. Clearly it is the result of the UMF successful defense. But, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have played a certain role in this phenomenon. There is scattered information (sometimes confirmed by the Ukrainian military) that the Russian armed forces are often in no hurry to provide artillery, air support, or often armored vehicles to the mercenaries. Thereby contributing to the destruction of entire units of the Wagner Group in frontal assaults on Ukrainian positions.
If such information is correct, then the Russian military leadership has chosen the tactic of gradual destruction of the Wagner PMCs, using its units in frontal assaults on the most difficult areas. Simultaneously, active formations of Pobeda PMC (which is associated with Shoigu), Redut PMC, and the Hawk PMC (negotiator) of Alexei Marushchenko are under way. The latter two emphasize their presence in Ukraine in 2022 from the end of February.
Thus, with the expediency of further use of PMC, an algorithm to neutralize Prigozhin by reducing the number of his company has been put under way, accompanied with the appearance of several “more professional” competitors.
What will happen to Prigozhin?
The key question, the answer to which determines Prigozhin’s future, is the mobilization potential of his PMC. We can presume that the practice of recruiting prisoners will continue. Information about the high level of losses will be “countered” by the stories of former prisoners who were amnestied after participating in the war in Ukraine.
Considering that there are about 250 thousand people in Russian colonies and prisons, according to the Federal Penitentiary Service, convicted of major and atrocities crimes (of which 22 thousand are women), the maximum mobilization potential of the “convict recruitment” for the “Wagner group” can be estimated at no more than 60-70 thousand people for the whole of 2023. With the current intensity of the “utilization of Wagnerians” at the front, this will be enough to maintain a constant number of groups for several months, but no more.
However, the second category of potential mercenaries – people from depressed areas with no permanent income and large credit debts – can give about 50 thousand more recruits. Provided, of course, that some of this category of individuals are not recruited to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Thus, the maximum number of recruits that Prigozhin can count on is up to 100 thousand. At the same time, the core of the PMC, consisting of trained and qualified fighters, is unlikely to be fully involved at the front in Ukraine, given the large number of ongoing missions abroad.
At the same time, other private military companies will be gaining some strength inside the Russian Federation, who can be expected to attempt take the place of “PMC Wagner” in less risky, but no less “public” operations. For example, the protection of key facilities, the stripping of already occupied settlements (if such will come to be as a result of the Russian offensive), the fight against partisans and Ukrainian DRG.
Thus, Prigozhin can rely on the “force component” being the basis of his political activity only in 2023. By autumn, at the current rate of “utilization” of Wagnerians, the importance and significance of the Wagner PMC will begin to decrease rapidly. Unless alternative sources of recruits are found or Wagnerians are mass–shipped to the rear (the first is unrealistic so far, the second is very unprofitable for the Ministry of Defense). There is a third option – Prigozhin will lose both recruitment channels, but so far Putin remains silent.
The media component of Prigozhin’s campaign may also prove unreliable. Monopolization (or strengthening of positions) in Telegram and an attempt to become a spokesperson for the radical media resources was possible in the situation of an urgent need to limit the flow of negativity towards the Kremlin. At this stage, it can be assumed that key influence groups in Putin’s surroundings will try to enter this field and either create new resources or take control over the existing ones.
Therefore, it is in 2023 that Prigozhin will try to join the group of security forces as an integral part of the military machine of the Russian Federation. We can expect his search for allies, one of who may be Zolotov, as well as an initiative to change Russian legislation and legalize the use of PMC, including the territory of the Russian Federation. However, so far all his attempts to do this have been unsuccessful.
The second direction of strengthening – a radical party project – is also possible. Prigozhin has the appropriate media resources, partners (Regnum, KP), and a “history” of participation in the war. And, importantly, he is associated with the Duma party “Fair Russia”. But, the problem here is that the Kremlin seems to be undecided. Putin has not yet made a decision on either the format of the future party, or the names of its possible leaders. Prigozhin, with his excessive autumn activity, has raised the question of his controllability. This means that he hasn’t just reduced himself the chances of leading a new political project alone, but also the chances of getting a controlling stake there. Apparently, the Kremlin has put the question of Prigozhin’s political future on hold for now and is going to watch from a distance whether he can “survive” both the frontline and political struggle with the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff.