Russia’s Rogue Commander Is Playing With Fire

Yevgeny Prigozhin has picked a public fight with the Russian military leadership in Ukraine. Why does the Kremlin tolerate him?

Black-and-white photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a bald man in a suit
Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the paramilitary Wagner Group, has turned the war in Ukraine into his own show since early May. From the trenches of Bakhmut, on Telegram and other social-media channels, he’s decried the Russian military command as worthless and corrupt, particularly claiming that it has deprived his forces of ammunition. At a time of extraordinary top-down control in Russian media and politics, Prigozhin’s outbursts have left a lot of observers perplexed about just what kind of political or military tug-of-war is playing out in front of the international public.

In a video posted on May 4, Prigozhin showed himself surrounded by the bodies of dead Wagner fighters, hurling expletives at Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. In another video days later, he threatened to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut if not provided with more ammunition. In still another, Prigozhin referred to a “grandfather” who prefers to store ammunition instead of supplying it to the front: “And what if this grandfather is a complete asshole?” he demanded.

Russians on social media often refer to Vladimir Putin as “ded” or “dedushka,” which means “grandfather,” leading many people to speculate that Prigozhin’s rant was a direct attack on Putin. But most likely it was not. In his videos, Prigozhin refers to Putin as the supreme commander in chief who understands the Wagner Group’s needs and gives orders that would fulfill them. These orders are then sabotaged by the military command.

In other words, Prigozhin is sticking with the lifesaving formula known in Russia as the “good tsar surrounded by bad boyars.” To turn on Putin would be suicide for him: He is waging an unequal fight with the Russian military leadership that has come to look like a fight for his own survival, and in which Putin is his only cover.

Legally, the Wagner Group shouldn’t exist. Russian law holds mercenary activities to be punishable by years in prison. And yet, with Putin’s blessing, the Wagner Group has evolved into a powerful private army with its own heavy weaponry and even its own air force. Its prominence in the current conflict dates to last summer, when the Russian military had suffered disastrous defeats and more fighters were needed on the battlefield. The Kremlin gave Prigozhin access to Russian prisons, where he started recruiting inmates by the thousands. He had no legal basis whatsoever for this recruitment, but the access was a sign of Putin’s supreme trust in him, as well as an example of the Russian president’s signature style of running affairs noninstitutionally, through shadowy informal schemes.

For those prosecuting Putin’s assault on Ukraine, prison inmates have become a valuable commodity and an expendable supply—fuel for an under-equipped war that disdains human life. Starting in 2022, firsthand accounts have emerged detailing the execution of inmates in the Wagner barracks for defection or even for questioning orders. On the battlefield, inmates are sent to their death as cannon fodder. According to Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, a charity advocating for prisoners’ rights, out of 50,000 recruited inmates, only 10,000 were still fighting as of January 2023, on account of mass casualties. The majority of the losses were suffered at the Battle of Bakhmut.

The military leadership has never cared for Prigozhin, certainly not since he has started repeatedly and publicly questioning its management of the war. For the FSB, Russia’s principal intelligence agency, as the owner of a private army, Prigozhin is necessarily an enemy of the state. But these forces couldn’t touch him so long as he had direct access to and support from Putin himself.

Prigozhin’s position has grown less secure since the end of 2022, however. By that point, Putin understood that Russians would accept the mobilization he had announced in late September, and that he had no shortage of manpower to prosecute his war. High-ranking generals seized the opportunity to sideline Prigozhin bureaucratically. Wagner lost access to the prisons, and the Defense Ministry took control of sending convicts to the battlefield (this time, the Kremlin pushed through the necessary legislation to legalize the recruitment).

Prigozhin has responded by stepping up his criticism of the military. He accused Gerasimov of intentionally refusing to supply his troops with munitions. And he has started to cross the boundaries of his designated domain—warfare—and engage in politics.

This spring, Prigozhin hardly seems like the same zealot who, just a few months ago, bragged about executing defectors with sledgehammers and inspired terror in the Russian elite. He has stood up for Alexey Moskalev, the father who was handed a two-year jail term for his 12-year-old daughter’s anti-war drawing. He speaks with respect about Volodymyr Zelensky—a leader whom top Russian officials will refer to only as a “needle freak” or “Ukronazi.” He mocks officials and parliamentarians who urge nuclear strikes on Ukraine.

The irony is profound: A ruthless warlord, who in Soviet times spent years in prison for street robberies and violence, has somehow styled himself as a voice of common sense against an official Russian war narrative that is so grotesque in its hatred that it resembles B-movie villainy. Prigozhin’s common sense is heavily mixed with prison slang and outward aggression, however. Just this week, a member of Parliament noted that the Wagner Group is illegal under Russian law, and Prigozhin’s social networks responded with a video in which Wagner members threaten to come to Moscow’s Red Square and “fuck him and those like him in the ass.”

Prigozhin’s popularity is hard to measure, given Russia’s heavily censored commons. But his rise to prominence as a public figure tracks with a growing understanding that Putin’s war with Ukraine has failed and, to an even greater degree, that the military command has proved impotent. That deficiency is now common knowledge across the Russian elite. The retreat from Kherson last fall—led by General Sergei Surovikin, who was dismissed as the head of the military operation afterward and whom Prigozhin treats with meaningful respect—was the war’s only successful military operation, to the extent that it was thoroughly organized and most of the troops and weaponry were preserved.

Putin favors loyalty over achievement. He never wanted his war in Ukraine to produce war heroes; he reserves that status for himself. But now Prigozhin is filling the gap, styling himself as the “people’s commander”: a good soldier, open and straightforward, who has the courage to tell it like it is while the self-indulgent commanders chill in luxury mansions and posh restaurants in Moscow. In one of his latest videos from Bakhmut, Prigozhin is shown addressing his soldiers: “Okay, guys, let’s hope we will finish off these bureaucrats. Our enemy is not the Ukrainian military, but a Russian bureaucrat.”

Defeat is an orphan. The worse the situation at the front, the more appealing Prigozhin’s message becomes to Russians. The question is: Why does Putin allow it? Why does he tolerate a paramilitary warlord exposing the blunders of his military campaign and feeding off the failures of his generals?

One reason may be practical: Prigozhin’s troops have proved their military efficiency, and they are still needed on the battlefield. Another could be personal. Putin has relied on Prigozhin’s assistance and advice on sensitive matters for a long time, and he has developed a habit of trusting him. Last October, The Washington Post reported that Prigozhin criticized the military command in direct conversation with Putin. One cannot conceive of anyone else allowed in Putin’s chambers who would dare to tell the Russian leader at least some part of the truth about the war.

No trust is indestructible, however. The latest U.S. intelligence leaks suggest that Prigozhin has contacted the Ukrainian intelligence directorate and offered to reveal Russian-troop positions in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut. Will Putin now cast Prigozhin as a traitor and destroy him?

Not necessarily: He can treat the back-channel diplomacy as a legitimate activity. He could even be convinced that Prigozhin was luring the Ukrainians into a trap. Still, Prigozhin is playing with fire. Putin might well tolerate Prigozhin’s attacks on the military command, but as soon as he considers them an assault on the state itself, he will crush him.