Putin's successor? Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin 'looking for place in new reality'


Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader and founder of the Russian paramilitary organisation the Wagner Group, has reportedly seen his group torn apart after being used in Moscow’s fight against Ukraine during the battle for Bakhmut. Observers argue the move to control the Wagner Group, often described as a network of mercenaries, or Vladimir Putin’s private army, is an attempt to control Prigozhin, who is reportedly preparing a bid to replace Russia’s longstanding president. But who is Prigozhin and could he actually be Moscow’s next leader?

Often called “Putin’s chef” — on account of his supplying the Kremlin with catering — Prigozhin’s significance and influence have come to the fore in recent months.

Russia is experiencing its own identity crisis, as Russians contemplate their pursuit of Ukraine, which has doggedly defended itself for well over a year since it was invaded by Putin’s forces in February 2022.

Looking to capitalise on this, it is believed, is Prigozhin, who leads the 50,000-strong Wagner Group, founded in 2014, and has been linked at times to neo-Nazism and far-right extremism.

Prigozhin’s seismic role in Russian life began in catering, a career he started after being sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1981 for robbery, fraud, and involving teenagers in crime.

Along with several accomplices, Prigozhin was convicted of robbing luxury apartments in high-end residences, though seven years later he was pardoned and released in 1990.

After this, Prigozhin sold hotdogs with his mother and stepfather in what is today St Petersburg.

According to the New York Times, “the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them”.

This burgeoning business then saw Prigozhin move into groceries, becoming a 15 percent stakeholder in Contrast, St Petersburg’s first grocery store chain, which would earn the oligarch millions — and the attention of Putin.

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In the decades since, Prigozhin has become more influential, particularly as his Wagner Group supported the Russian leader and his bid for dominance against the West.

He has become so dominant, reports suggest, that he is the favourite to take over when Putin himself leaves office.

Among his biggest backers are extremists and those on the far-right, who believe Putin’s time in charge is coming to an end. At 70 years old, having been Russian leader since 1999, some say they can see new beginnings on the horizon.

This includes Russian opposition powerhouse Lyubov Sobol, who told Foreign Policy earlier this year: “There will be a lot of political turmoil after Putin. Anyone will be able to take part. But having the resources of a well-known name, media outlets, and followers is useful.”

According to the New York Post in January, Prigozhin was beginning to “spruik” his army into becoming Russia’s most effective fighting unit, as well as voicing his annoyance at governmental posts Putin has filled with his cronies.

Valery Gerasimov, was appointed to the role of Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, and is one of those Prigozhin has targeted.

For the Wagner chief, Gerasimov is responsible for “poor tactical decisions, a lack of ammunition and inadequate equipment” as Russia’s fight with Ukraine begins to face technical difficulties.

He was recently the target of a video from Wagner Group mercenaries, who took Gerasimov to task for his decisions during the war.

Prigozhin later spoke out about the clip, claiming that it was an authentic representation of how his troops felt, ensuring their complaints were magnified and no doubt heard by Putin.

“The guys asked me to pass along that when you’re sitting in a warm office,” he told Russia’s state-controlled media. “It’s hard to hear about the problems on the front line, but when you’re dragging the dead bodies of your friends every day and seeing them for the last time – then supplies are very much needed.”

He added: “As for the problems that are unfortunately surfacing at every step… we will force them to be solved.”

This was the intervention many believe was a sign of Prigozhin’s bid for power, including, CIA chief Bill Burns, who last year said: “(Putin’s) circle of advisers narrowed. And in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s influence.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an ousted critic of Moscow, agreed, telling Radio Free Europe last year that Prigozhin was “looking for his place in this new reality”.

“That has brought him into conflict with many powerful people,” Mr Khodorkovsky added.

In a similar view, ex-human rights council member, Ekaterina Vinokurova, reiterated Putin’s position on the likes of Prigozhin, telling the Wall Street Journal: “The people around Putin protect themselves. They have this deep belief that they shouldn’t upset the president.”

Prigozhin could be different, though the contribution of Wagner, journalist Denis Korotkov argued, is vital.

NPR reported that Korotkov believed that considering the enemies Prigozhin had made, his life may actually depend on Wagner’s success in Ukraine.

The journalist said: “If Wagner doesn’t make significant achievements in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s star will of course fall. And there will be plenty of people who would be happy to participate in burying him.”


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