The protracted military conflict in Ukraine created many uncertainties for the Russian political system and led to increased tensions in the establishment. A kind of vacuum was created in the media and political landscape, and imbalance appeared between the controlling points of state administration.

The exclusive right of the President and other holders of supreme power to form the key semantic images of the future and vectors of the country’s development were called in question. Systematic violation of many pre-established political rules has led to weakening of the entire vertical of power.

As a result, new public figures with an ambiguous reputation, but ready to challenge the incumbent authorities, are gaining strength on Russia’s political arena. Until recently, even thinking of this was impossible — the fate of Alexei Navalny is the most striking example of this. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, became especially notorious during the months of the Ukrainian conflict.

Building a business empire

Many media classify Prigozhin as a so-called “oligarch,” or a big businessman close to the Russian government and personally to Vladimir Putin. This is partly evidenced by Prigozhin’sentrepreneurial history, the scaling of his interests and influence, as well as the relationship he established with the Russian President and other statesmen. Like Putin, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) was Prigozhin’s hometown, where he grew up and took his first entrepreneurial steps. In the Soviet times, Prigozhin was tried twice for theft, fraud, and involvement of minors in criminal activity; he served about nine years for these crimes. After getting out on an amnesty in the early 1990s, Prigozhin started his business selling hot dogs, a business that brought him his first capital, but which was not enough to feed his growing business ambitions.

At the first stage, Prigozhin was greatly helped by Boris Spektor, who invited him to manage the Contrast chain of private grocery stores – the first supermarkets in St. Petersburg. Spector’s business was controlled by Mikhail Mirilashvili, who had a reputation of a semi-criminal entrepreneur.

In addition to food projects, Spector was interested in gambling. He took an active part in the opening of the first casinos in St. Petersburg, at a time when Putin was responsible for the development of the gambling business in the City Hall. Putin and Prigozhin are believed to have met first in this field. Prigozhin received a push into big business after the opening in 1996 in cooperation with businessman Kirill Ziminov (commercial director of the Contrast network in 1993) of the Staraya Tamozhnya restaurant. At that time, the establishment was considered the first “elite” restaurant in the city. Riding the wave of success, Prigozhin went on to open other well-known restaurants: Sem Sorok, Stroganov Dvor and Russky Kitsch. In 1998, he opened the first and only restaurant in St. Petersburg on the New Island ship, which could sail along the Neva during various events. This became the most expensive and prestigious restaurant in St. Petersburg.

The success of Prigozhin’s restaurant business, first and foremost, was associated with his focus on a narrow audience – the St. Petersburg elite, prominent city officials, and foreign guests. Prigozhin’sprofessional “portfolio” includes a list of several dozen heads of state and high-ranking politicians for whom he personally organized dinners and receptions. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he servicedPutin’s meetings with former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, former French president Jacques Chirac, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Prince, now King, Charles III.

Prigozhin did not just organize non-protocol events, but personally serviced distinguished guests and even entertained them, gaining trustof the President and the ironic label of “Putin’s Chef.” By that time, Prigozhin had completely separated from his former partners and started doing business on his own. With varying degrees of success, he tried to develop a fast food chain in St. Petersburg, as well as aconstruction business. Confirming the high ratings of Prigozhin’s”banquets,” Putin celebrated his birthday in 2003 in one of his restaurants.

However, the real expansion of Prigozhin’s business empire occurred during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, when Putin temporarily became the head of the Russian government. Firstly, the Concord holding company controlled by Prigozhin got the right to organize a banquet on Medvedev’s inauguration as President of the Russian Federation in 2008. Already in 2009, he opened a restaurant in the Government House, thanks to a loan from the VEB company, active in construction of food processing plants. Since then, a long road of state procurement and monopolization of the most profitable market areas opened up for Prigozhin’s firms. Since 2011, the Concord holding companies have been providing meals to the Moscow schools after a similar project failed in St. Petersburg. Concord became a monopolist on the Moscow school food market, supplying 90% of hot meals to schools. The company has also received orders for the supply of meals to the hospitals in Moscow and the Moscow region.

Entry into the military market in 2012, where he was responsible for supplying food, housing, and other services, as well as building military facilities became the most lucrative for Prigozhin’sbusinesses. His company, Concord, supplied more than 90% of food for the Russian military. Contracts for the supply of food with Prigozhin’s companies were also signed by other state agencies, such as the Emergency Ministry. Disputes often arose about the quality of Concord holding companies’ products, yet this did not prevent it from receiving more than $1 billion a year for its services from the Ministry of Defence alone. Active participation in the public procurement system became a real gold mine for the tycoon ensuring a luxurious lifestyle. Prigozhin acquired high end real estate, a fleet of three private jets and a yacht. Prigozhin cannot be referred to as socially responsible big business, which most of the oligarchs of the 90s were forced to become on Putin’s recommendation. He showed no interest in humanitarian and social projects that did not bring obvious and quick benefits. After 2014 Prigozhin saw new and very lucrative business prospects in setting up his own “private warfare” business, operating outside the legislation.

Private army serving its own interests,

in conflict with the Ministry of Defence

Prigozhin shied away from his new “military business” for a long time denying any connection with the so-called Wagner mercenary army, and its very existence. Prigozhin threatened to sue the media, which mentioned his connection to this military body. Only in September 2022, when participation of the Wagner fighters in the Ukrainian conflict could no longer be concealed, did he publicly admit that he had created his own military company in May 2014 to protect the Russian-speaking population in Donbas. Since the autumn of 2022, a large-scale information promotion of Prigozhin, his private army and all related undertakings has begun. In fact, Wagner was turning into a special global brand that also took the right to be the leading expert on the problems of the so-called “Special Military Operation, becoming an ardent critic of the Russian military leaders. The reason why the oligarch has carefully hidden his relation to the military company in recent years are quite understandable. Employees of the so-called Wagner mercenary group took an active part in the conflict in Syria, and also systematically expanded their presence in the African countries, where Prigozhin had his own business interests. In exchange for the security, military, intelligence and political services his companies provided to the local regimes, Prigozhin was granted access to mineral deposits. By operating in the grey zone, he was able to effectively resolve its business problems outside Russia with great commercial returns. Concealment of “military affairs” was also important from the point of view of the risk of sanctions, in order not to attract external and internal attention again to his business.

Participation of the military company in the Ukrainian armed conflict radically changed Prigozhin’s situation – hiding his relation to Wagner for fear of sanctions and prosecution from the US or the EU became a futile exercise. On the other hand, this phase opened up colossal opportunities of using the budgets and human resources, starting with convicts from the Russian prisons that he recruited. There were clear political prospects and the possibility of developing new business areas for him, gaining more weight in his country. The very format of a special military operation implied introduction of at least partial restriction on dissemination of information and evaluation of the operational situation. The Russian military leaders were forced to operate only in this self-control paradigm, which to a large extent created an information vacuum. This had caused concern in the Russian public and strong anxiety in the establishment amid the protracted conflict. Understanding specifics of the moment that had arisen perfectly, the Wagner owner immediately filled the empty information niches in order to increase his weight and promote his military achievements. The main subject to whom Prigozhin tried to demonstrate his effectiveness and, possibly, to sell himself as a potential player in the local politics, apparently, was Putin.

The main object of the attack by Prigozhin and his companies was the top military brass of the country, with which initially he was, so to speak, on good terms. However, after the successful Kharkov counter-offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in September 2022, Prigozhin decided not only to distance himself from the military failure, but also switched to an active administrative and internal political “offensive”. Excessive information activity and promotion of openly populist arguments in the public mind have borne fruit. It began to seem that it was Wagner who was the main striking force in the war that almost alone fought the Ukrainian army. His tactical achievements, albeit insignificant, were presented by Wagner’s owner as strategic victories.

Initially, it was General Alexander Lapin who was criticized by Prigozhin. Later the Wagner owner did his best to shift the disturbing public attention to the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff, whom he tried to discredit with a treason charge.

Prigozhin also began to ask the Ministry of Defence for more material support for his units, believing that here he should be in a privileged position, despite the private nature of his activity. Speculation on the issue of shell hunger allowed him to directly accuse the high military officials of creating obstacles to his activities in Ukraine, as well as to justify the “slow” advance in some sectors of the front. This helped Prigozhin disguise his own similar miscalculations of local military planning, and so far no one has asked Prigozhin about the impressive losses among his men.

Prigozhin not only developed themes to discredit Russia’s military leadership in the public eye, but also sought to sow distrust within the command, backing some figures against others. Together with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, he actively criticized General Lapin, and later paid complementary signs of attention to Sergei Surovikin, when he became commander of the Russian united groupof troops in Ukraine in October 2022. Prigozhin was not embarrassed that it was Surovikin who was responsible for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, which in itself was a no less significant loss than withdrawal from the Kharkov direction.

The game of increasing contradictions in the highest command of the Russian army created the atmosphere of mutual distrust in the army units and leadership, which was noted by many world media and experts. Prigozhin and the people he supported in the military command achieved a very high level of global information awareness. All negativity towards the Russian military leadership in Russia was fed powerfully by Prigozhin.

The media empire and the manipulation of public opinion

Prigozhin can be considered an atypical contemporary Russian oligarch. He is distinguished for his possession of a large privatemedia empire and think tanks capable of effectively manipulating the public opinion. This is more akin to the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, when Gusinsky, Berezovsky, and other big bankers had their own media to influence the public opinion and fight internal information wars. When Putin came to power, private information space was effectively wiped out. Large businessmen’s ownership of some media is no more than a screen or a social duty. They are all de facto managed by the presidential administration.

In October 2019, Prigozhin created his own media holding company Patriot, whose board he heads. The holding company included various media outlets such as the Federal Information Agency (FIA), Economics Today, Politics Today, Nation News, the Slovo i Delomagazine, Journalistskaya Pravda online websites, the PolitExpertmagazine, Inforeactor, and NewInform Internet information portals, PolitRussia and Nevskiye Novosti online magazines.

As part of the information activity Prigozhin also has his own network of Telegram channels, directly or indirectly related to his personal activities. The success and popularity of his network are linked to the exclusive materials provided by Wagner, and alternative opinions on the operational situation and assessments of the actions of the Russian regular army. Contents of Prigozhin’s network have often been used by the opponents to the Russian military leadership to collect material that harms it, and to create tension in the Russian society.

The emergence of Prigozhin’s cinema universe can be considered a phenomenal event in Russia’s cultural life — in recent years, several feature films on military themes were shot with participation of hiscompanies. The making of such films, as can be understood, was aimed at cultivating patriotic views along with the promotion of mercenaryism, which Prigozhion believes is immanent in the interests of the fatherland.

The Internet Research Agency (or the troll factory or Prigozhin’strolls) carrying out special work in Russian and foreign social networks, became a tool for manipulating public opinion for Prigozhin. 

The agency created many fake accounts on the social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube) to promote its campaigns. As in the case of Wagner, Prigozhin denied his involvement in the activities of the troll factory for a long time for fear that Western countries would put him on their blacklists. Only in February 2023 did he acknowledge himself as the creator and head of this business, which, according to him, is needed to protect the Russian Internet space from aggressive Western propaganda.

This facility gained worldwide fame in 2017 in connection with US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the US elections. The Mueller investigation revealed facts of active manipulation of public opinion in the United States by the troll factory, which bought search engine advertising in support of Donald Trump. The fact that the Internet Research Agency bought the ads was confirmed by representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. With such a wide range of tools at his disposal for manipulating public opinion, Prigozhin provided himself and his projects with the necessary information advancement to change the opinion circulating about him in the Russian and foreign media in the desired direction, and to spread disinformation about his competitors. Having assumed the right to be the key, if not the only critic of the operation in Ukraine, Prigozhin became a kind of a living source of news, thus promoting his media businesses. Ultimately, all of this led to deepening of divisions within the Russian political system.

In the grey zone

Despite a series of public admissions by Prigozhin confirming his involvement in Wagner and the troll factory, he still acts outside of the legal framework and completely ignores Russian legislation. The point is not only that the status of private military companies and legal support for recruitment of prisoners are not defined in Russian legislation.

The legislative measures taken in Russia since the beginning of the conflict have strengthened criminal responsibility for discreditation of the Army; yet this did not affect Prigozhin, who continued his information campaigns against the Russian military leadership. Moreover, the owner of the private army was concerned with creating conditions for his own legal protection by the state under the guise of the wish to protect his subordinates. 

In January 2023, Prigozhin wrote to the spokesman of the Russian State Duma (Parliament, ed.) with a proposal to prohibit discrediting volunteers, including ex-convicts, for example by speaking publicly about their past crimes. As punishment for the violation, Prigozhinproposed a prison sentence of up to five years. When the amendments were prepared in the State Duma in early March on the basis of a letter from Wagner’s owner, Prigozhin made a good PR move, also trying to protect himself in advance. He again appealed to the Speaker of the lower house of parliament with a proposal to amend the bill, asking not to extend the effect of the amendments to the senior command staff of the volunteers and the military leadership of the Russian Defence Ministry.

Prigozhin’s new request was ignored. But some “compromise” amendments were adopted, criminalizing public dissemination of knowingly false information, as well as public actions aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, volunteer formations, organizations and persons assisting in the fulfillment of the tasks assigned to the Army. The maximum penalty is foreseen in the form of imprisonment for up to 15 years.

Indeed, these amendments appear to be a “compromise” for Wagner and the Ministry of Defence, but due to the lack of clear specifics, these are the norms that can have a broad interpretation. This will allow Prigozhin to ignore Russian laws in the future. Prigozhin is still passive in the issue of regulating groups of mercenaries, protection of their employees and their families, because he is unwilling to leave the grey area, which is so comfortable for his interests.

Big political ambitions

After a series of frank confessions in mid-March 2023, Prigozhinmade a new coming out by announcing his political ambition to run for president of Ukraine. Of course, the statement can be seen as provocation designed for a deep emotional response from the Russian or Ukrainian audience. The pattern of this kind of information stuffing was well worked out by the troll factory and many other populist politicians. Understandably, the statement had no real meaning, especially in relation to Ukraine. 

However, such a political statement should be considered more seriously – from the point of view of Russian politics. Bold political trolling was often used as a means of forming a window of opportunity for the realization of unpredictable or impossible electoral results. By the way, the incumbent Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used it to his success. This means there are no obstacles for Prigozhin to voice his political ambitions to attain Russia’s highest political position.

It is reasonable to assume that Prigozhin intends to take an active part in the 2024 challenge for the Russian presidency, albeit in a secondary role of Putin’s sparring partner. Putin is very likely to be satisfied by this scenario of the future election campaign, but only while he is capable of maintaining a stable position of an arbiter in the Russian political system. For the moment Prigozhin cannot compete with the President seriously. Putin still has a fairly high public confidence index, serving as a guarantor of the previous social and economic course in the country’s development, even in the face of unprecedented external pressure.

There are already signs of a significant strengthening of Prigozhin’sposition, and his carte blanche in Ukraine could provoke him to openly challenge the authorities in the future, especially if stability of Putin’s power is shaken by internal military or social cataclysms. Anumber of signs point to his already starting preparations for potential political events in 2024, accumulating the necessary elements for a possible victory. 

It is important to note that the country’s military leadership was not the only target of Prigozhin’s attacks, as he cleverly exploited sensitive and populist themes, provoking strong public reaction. In fact, it can be assumed that he was outlining his hypothetical future electoral programme. Prigozhin has publicly accused Russian big business of a luxurious lifestyle and being reluctant to submit to the country’s martial law ignoring the plight of the population. He has also proposed extremely radical measures to nationalize foreign propertyof the companies that left Russia, and later the capital of the Russian oligarchs. Similarly, the Wagner head accused the Russian bureaucracy. Even regional policy did not go unnoticed. At the beginning of the conflict, the St. Petersburg authorities were subjected to regular criticism, while later heads of several other regions were added to the list of “enemies”, who, in his opinion, paid little attention to the country’s military problems. In his customary manner Prigozhindemonstrated his liking of the heads of other regions who either did not create obstacles for his activities or offered some help. The Wagner owner has actually become the only person in Russia with the right to constantly violate the established political etiquette and make the conflicts public.

The leader of the mercenaries is also involved in youth politics. At the beginning of 2023, the first youth clubLittle     Wagner was opened in St. Petersburg, and already in March the Wagner recruitment centers were opened in 42 Russian cities, often on the sites of the sports clubs for children and teenagers. 

In November 2022, Prigozhin announced his intention to create special centres for training and managing the people’s militia. The pilot project was to be implemented in the Kursk and Belgorod regions, and Prigozhin urged local businesses to participate in active financing of his regional activities. It is worth adding that the Wagner owner has a specific power resource, represented by ex-convicts and his employees, whose activities are not regulated by law. 

In early 2023, Prigozhin said promotion of Wagner’s ideology was necessary, which will in fact give the mercenary group the status of a military political party. A video of Prigozhin was widely circulated in the Telegram channels, where he literally said the following: ”We are very likely to take Artyomovsk. After that, we’ll slowly start reloading, downsizing and later a stage will start where we will recruit people in different regions. And the Wagner private army should turn from a simply private company, the world’s best, mind you, army, capable of defending the state, it will turn into an army with an ideology. The ideology is fighting for justice!” 

At first glance, one gets the impression that the entrepreneur has become a unique political figure in the modern history of Russia, with his unique business style. However, his tactics of building a political basis are strikingly similar to Alexei Navalny’s. The general idea is exploitation of hatred for the bureaucratic and oligarchic regime, for the entire political infrastructure. There is also similarity in the means of communication with the target audience, and the focus on the youth as the driving force behind a potential protest. 

Prigozhin completely took over the vacant place of the anti-system opposition in the Russian politics, de facto, he became a new Navalny. His advantage is that, unlike representatives of political opposition, Prigozhin has power, impressive financial and media resources and is uncontrollable, also because he hides behind the mask of a fathead and clown.

Subject or object in foreign policy

Prigozhin’s extra-systemic and uncontrolled activities have created many tensions in the Russian military command, among the countrypoliticians and businessmen. With his direct or indirect involvement, numerous points of tension began to form at all vertical levels of power thus opening up the possibility of destroying the entire administrative structure of Putin’s Russia with further weakening of its international influence. The actions of Wagner’s owner, therefore, are in sync with the declared plans of the United States to reform Russia, both politically and in international relations.

It is obvious that the 2024 elections will probably not be Prigozhin’sstar hour, but his figure is more than realistic in the future, when Putin finally decides to leave, or a drop in his rating opens other windows of opportunity, including a military coup. Paradoxically as it may seem today, it is Prigozhin who could become a central figure in negotiations with NATO and the United States. 

Several factors speak in favor of this scenario. Firstly, the United States is still relatively lenient to the activities of Prigozhin and the Wagner group. Although sanctions were imposed on his businesses, the US does not interfere much with his commercial projects or with his participation in the hostilities in Ukraine. The issue of recognizingWagner as a terrorist organization is still unresolved in the US Congress, apparently meeting resistance from the Biden administration. 

Secondly, Prigozhin, as president of Russia, will fully guarantee American long-term interests. To some extent, he will be able to maintain stability of public administration through tough measures and thus ensure the country’s fulfillment of various international obligations. At that, sanctions will not be lifted at all or only partial restrictions could be maintained, with the obvious aim of doubting respect for democratic principles and civil rights in Russia. 

Interestingly, Prigozhin gives somewhat positive signals to the United States. He does not openly take an anti-American or anti-Western stance, and all of his statements about the United States are mostly populist at the level of political trolling. Prigozhin is one of the few Russian speakers who treats all Ukrainians with sufficient respect and even reverence, despite his war activities. This circumstance opens up broad opportunities for resolving the Ukrainian conflict in the long term, including taking into account American interests.

The scenario of Prigozhin’s participation in the 2024 presidential campaign, as well as the future, are not yet clearly defined. But his ambitions are clear, which, under some circumstances, will show that he is far from being a clown, but a very cautious player and not at all foolish.

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