Yevgeny Prigozhin is a convicted thief, a Russian Oligarch and the founder and boss of the Wagner mercenary group.
Despite private military companies being illegal in Russia, President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has benefited significantly by commissioning the Wagner Group to deliver success on the battlefield.
However, is Prigozhin’s growing influence now a threat to Putin’s authority?
In 1981, a 20-year-old Prigozhin was caught stealing – for the second time – and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for robbery – he served a total of nine years in detention.
After his release, Prigozhin began selling hot dogs in Leningrad, before founding, or becoming involved in, many new businesses. In the 2000s, Prigozhin grew closer with Vladimir Putin, and his companies started winning numerous lucrative government contracts.
Prigozhin is wealthy, but the war in Ukraine has provided him a unique platform for wider influence.
Russia had anticipated limited Ukrainian resistance to its illegal invasion, but in the event the Russian army was ill-prepared for the determined and motivated Ukrainian response. The Russian army struggled to hold ground, and Russian casualty rates were rocketing.
Putin turned to his old friend Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenary group who – manned with newly recruited convicts – delivered battlefield success.
Prigozhin claimed his mercenary group was the “best army in the world”, but as his influence grew, so he became increasingly critical of the Russian MOD, its leadership, and indeed the Russian approach to the conflict.
Putin controls the Russian oligarchs through the lucrative contracts upon which they rely. But, Putin is understandably wary of mercenary groups that have their own agenda, are motivated by money and not patriotism, and who have the military capability to mount a coup.
In Sudan earlier this year, frictions between the regular army and a former rebel group that had previously agreed to work together swiftly led to open warfare – a similar conflict between Sergei Shoigu (Russian defence minister) and Prigozhin would be catastrophic for Putin.
Prigozhin operates outside of the Russian military command chain – he is a law unto himself and feels only answerable to President Putin – but, the Wagner Group has proven effective at delivering battlefield success – despite huge casualty rates – something which the Russian army has struggled to deliver.
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This has led to growing friction between Shoigu and Prigozhin, resulting in the army limiting supplies of ammunition to the Wagner Group, and also failing to protect Wagner’s flanks during intense fighting in Bakhmut.
The lack of a unified command and control structure is a frustration for Putin. To reduce the influence of Prigozhin, the Russian MOD has announced that all “volunteers” must be registered with them by 1 July this year, in a clear effort to bring Wagner under the MOD chain of command.
In response, Prigozhin has offered his own contract to the MOD, suggesting they are subjugated to his mercenary group!
Even if Prigozhin was to acquiesce, it is not entirely clear how the MOD expects to “control” the volunteers – the Wagner fighters are usually very well remunerated for their service, whereas the regular army are poorly paid.
If the new mercenary volunteers are to be brought into the MOD, their different employment contracts would have a devastating effect on the morale of their regular contemporaries and greatly increase internal tensions.
The war of words has escalated as the 1 July deadline approaches, with Prigozhin openly accused of planning to plot a coup against Putin, despite having been was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal in 2022.
Mercenary groups have provided Putin a much-needed unique military capability; however, there are unintended consequences to their use.
Putin cannot afford to tolerate any potential threat to his own authority; but, he also knows that he cannot afford to lose the military campaign in Ukraine. Putin now faces a Hobson’s choice – entirely of his own making.