Yevgeny Prigozhin seems to have big plans and he is very clear about them by unnecessarily saying some hard truths along with proposed actions that should be taken that ultimately serve his direct interests. Yevgeny Prigozhin is using Vladimir Putin’s rulebook in his plans for power by ticking all the boxes Putin ticked as he rose to power. However, unlike Putin, Prigozhin doesn’t have history on his side.
I’m attaching a documentary below on the rise of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Those old enough to remember the 1990s may be able to remember a very widely televised Russian scandal in the late 1990s in relation to the Mabetex affair. The prosecutor-general back then, Yuri Skuratov was investigating Boris Yeltsin and his close associates over the siphoning of funds into Swiss bank accounts there were intended for the Kremlin’s restoration. As a result, Skuratov was framed with a sex tape and subsequently fired from his post. The person organising the frame-up was none other than Vladimir Putin himself who back then was the chief of the FSB, Russia’s security services. Putin gained the full trust of Yeltsin and shot to power as a result.
Once President, Putin consolidated his hold on power by winning the Chechen War (basically by flattening Chechnya with bombs, something he repeated in Aleppo and Bakhmut) and proving himself as a strongman. He then went after the oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky who had amassed vast amounts of Russia’s wealth during the chaotic years of the early 1990s, only to redistribute the oligarchs’ wealth to his friends and his close allies. The subsequent rise in energy prices had alleviated the Russian economy and Putin took all the credit.
Prigozhin has already ticked one major box as a potential candidate as Russia’s dictator and with his recent rants against the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin may have also ticked the box of addressing Putin’s biggest problem. Firstly, Prigozhin has taken the credit for winning Bakhmuth. Russian Telegram channels that follow the war are in general big supporters of Prigozhin and he has distinguished himself from the Russian military. Prigozhin and his private military Wagner Group have achieved what the Russian military could not achieve, so they are celebrated in Russian society as the strongmen that can get things done, in contrast to the Russian military which is corrupt and inefficient. In order to preserve his status as the victor, and once again bring down the Russian military, Prigozhin withdrew the Wagner Group from Bakhmut, so, now he won’t be blamed for Bakhmut’s eventual fall when it is overrun by the incoming Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Now, Prigozhin is calling for the execution of the Minister of Defense for his failure in the war. This may solve Putin a big problem. Once Russia begins losing territory once again in Ukraine, something that according to Prigozhin is inevitable, Putin can’t take the blame. In Russia, the Tsar can never be blamed and it’s always his subordinates’ fault. So, by calling for the execution of Shoigu, Prigozhin is absolving Putin from Russia’s failure of its war on Ukraine and this should please Putin very well.
Prigozhin is positioning himself as the man that Putin can trust and as the strongman in Russia that can get things done. At the same time, he is the only top Russian leader of some sort with some influence who is telling the Russian public the hard truths: that Russia is losing the war, that many men are killed out of incompetence, and that the Russian military has no consideration for the lives of its soldiers.
However, even if the Russian political situation favours Prigozhin as Russia’s next leader, Prigozhin doesn’t have the advantage that Putin had that basically, the West had its doors open for Russia. Secondly, Prigozhin is a warlord fighting in an illegal war so it is very difficult to imagine the West’s reaction if Prigozhin is elected Russian President after Putin’s death. Even if, let’s say, hypothetically speaking, Prigozhin decides to withdraw Russia’s forces from Ukraine and end the war, he still faces the problem of war crimes that his group committed, so there is also that possibility that Prigozhin himself may be indicted by the International Criminal Court. Europe is in the process of registering the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation and that also makes Prigozhin’s case for the Russian leadership a bit murky.
Above all, the problem for any Russian leader coming after Putin is the current collapse of the Russian economy and Russia will never recover unless it once again opens its door to trade with the West, but to do so, it would have to pay war reparations, and hand over leaders and criminals who committed war crimes. Prigozhin, a leader of a group of terrorists who mutilate each other with hammers may become a leader of a rogue state, only to keep it rogue for longer like some sort of giant North Korea.