Up to then, the charge against him was led by Russian opposition circles, for whom the Kremlin’s denial of Wagner’s existence was another stigma of “Putinism”. For the Russian elites, and in the West, Prigozhin, not helped by his physical appearance, was nicknamed the “Rasputin of the Kremlin”, or more demeaning “the Putin’s chef”. But, at this particular turn of the war in Ukraine, his decision to go public was more than a thirst for recognition, and it did not fail to raise new questions about power games at the top of the Russian system.
Wagner (or Vagner, in earlier transcript to Latin alphabet) came to attention almost 10 years ago, in Syria. A high point goes back to 2017-2018, when the group was involved in bloody fighting against “terrorists” backed by the American aviation. The Kremlin, seemingly taken by surprise, was obliged to deny operating there. Up to the moment the Islamic State released the video of 2 Russian prisoners. One of them, a former Airborne Troops reconnaissance draftee did describe how, in the summer of 2013, he had pushed the door of a popular Moscow bar. In an office above, the private military company, Moran Security Group, was hiring, and organising the training, of security guards to escort vessels in world’s oceans where pirates present a risk. The man ended fighting in Syria for the Wagner group, which has been trailed from Crimea and Donbass to the Middle-East, sub-Saharan Africa, even Latin America.
During all those years, Russian officials were in total denial, even when the story was hard to sell, but never embarrassing enough to deter the Russian capacity to stick with its most unplausible narratives. Officially, Prigozhin was a businessman among others, just richer. Whatsoever, in 2018, a State Duma committee promised to present a relevant draft law modifying the Russian legislation that declared mercenaries illegals. From then on, they were called Private Military Companies (PMC). This is also the time when a retired intelligence officer, who took part in wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, expressed his conviction that the battlefield of the future belongs to PMCs and drones, and that major military powers evidently intent to fight each other indirectly on the territories of third countries, as they did during the Cold war.
For all the speculations about political motives, money has been – and still is – the key element. For men with military training, or thirst for adventures, PMC offer salaries and living conditions well above those of regular armed forces. By subcontracting PMC, the Russian ministry of defence can save millions from its depleted budget, and reduce risks of facing internal and international responsibilities. It just cost the transport of the men. For Wagner and others, this was an unexpected chance to build a fortune. All through the world, thousands of companies and even governments were desperately seeking protection for their trade routes, infrastructures threatened by terrorism and rival groups fighting for control of natural resources. This can of course coincide with the Kremlin foreign policy, but first of all it created and enriched Wagner & Co. For instance, already in 2013, Prigozhin’s Evro Polis company had been securing oil fields for the Syrian state-owned General Petroleum Corporation in return for rights over 25% of all the Syrian oil and gas fields. This same pattern of being paid in natural resources has been the rule since then.
But there has been more in Ukraine, where Wagner’s men fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and, since February 2022, have been reinforcing the Armed Forces with a degree of coordination between them impossible to establish at this moment. But all existed in secret – up to this early autumn, when Prigozhin went public in an extravagant way. From September to late November, he has declared that yes, indeed, he has founded a paramilitary group called Wagner; that his media empire, Concord, had used its social media network to meddle with electoral campaigns, including in the U.S. He inaugured a huge headquarter, in a very expensive area of Russia’s second capital, Saint Petersburg.
That can only be seen as a projection of power by a 61-year-old man tired of living in the shadows. His motives are still the object of intense speculation, notably about his degree of autonomy from president Putin. What one knows for sure is his declaration, conveyed through the press department of his Concord company, that Wagner “is helping and will help the population of borders territories” to train and organise militias, to build defence infrastructure, to prepare the population for harsh times. He added that the work has already begin in the Russian regions of Belgorod and Kursk, in line with a project he will finance alone, without state intervention.
Those two regions have been hit, with human casualties and spectacular pictures of oil depots in flame, and inhabitants live in fear. Other spots in Russian territory have affected lately, through direct shots or sabotage, without official revendication. The West was not happy, raising further questions about Kiev’s intentions, and it used its open channels with Russia to prevent escalation across the borders. That is something Moscow does not want to embark on, the restrained official reaction dissatisfied a part of the population and radicals. By proposing to take in his hands the security of borders’ areas, and that of those Ukrainians targeted as “traitors” or “collaborators” after Kiev’s reconquest, and even behind the front, Prigozhin is helping Putin.
But what does he expect in return? If he is a patriot, he is also an oligarch, albeit a different of those who emerged in the mid-90thies, because he possesses a paramilitary group in a country at war. His men have been an indispensable tool since the invasion started, even more today, after combats have exposed the inept tactics of the commanders, relaying on poorly trained demotivated men. Today Moscow needs to reinforce the new front line on the Dnieper and to redeploy new troops. It has a price, the Russian budget is low, but the post-war period will open a bounty already eyed by companies all through the world. Ukraine’s eastern part, the Black Sea coast, Russia depleted economy, all will be a bonanza. Prigozhin has the means, the connections, the leverage. Under Putin, or his successor.
He is also thirsty for recognition. He has been depicted as a primitive person, despised by the military and the Russian elites. He is now sending the bullet back, including when he asks how many sons of the elites are on the front. This is a man who can make the difference between a victory or a defeat.