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POLITICS

Best of enemies: Wagner chief Prigozhin's feud with Defense Minister to blow up in his face

The public feud between the former criminal Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owns the Wagner PMC, and the Russian Defense Ministry leadership has escalated. Prigozhin has taken to recording videos and posting them online, in which he blames Gerasimov [Russian Chief of Staff] and Shoigu [Russian Defense Minister] for the military's failures and alludes to a problematic “grandfather” (which many perceive as an attack on the commander-in-chief). This public conflict marks the culmination of a political drama, in which Putin's chef has set out to rival the GRU for resources. It is possible that this public conflict may signal Prigozhin's downfall. This piece unveils new information about this intense struggle. 

This article has been written in association with Bellingcat and Der Spiegel

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Content
  • How it all began

  • Competitors

  • Defeat of the Redut PMC

  • Revenge

  • Dizzy with success

  • Epilogue

How it all began

A decade ago, just prior to the Ukraine conflict, the Ministry of Defense played a pivotal role in elevating Prigozhin's stature. The firms owned by Putin's little-known chef were awarded substantial government contracts to cater to the military. Despite the poor quality of service (mass food poisonings in the army even prompted the FSB military counterintelligence to launch criminal proceedings against Prigozhin's companies), this generated adequate financing for Prigozhin's personal ventures, which included a troll farm, a network of dubious media outlets, and, of course, a private military company overseen by a former GRU member and neo-Nazi named Dmitry Utkin (who adopted the moniker “Wagner” owing to his admiration for the Third Reich). Following his ousting from the GRU in 2013, Utkin made an unsuccessful attempt to fight in Syria. However, from the outset of the Ukrainian invasion, he led the newly formed PMC that later became known as the Wagner PMC, taking part in the seizure of Crimea and Donbass. Even then, the PMC's fighters, known as “musicians,” were operating under GRU supervision. They received training at Russian military bases and utilized military airfields, while GRU officers directly oversaw their actions in conflict zones. Intercepted phone calls, for instance, indicate that in Ukraine, Utkin (using the alias Wagner) received directives from the GRU officer Ivannikov.

Prigozhin did not conceive the Wagner PMC as a personal endeavor, nor did he determine its military objectives. Nevertheless, Putin's chef did not overlook the opportunity to profit from the private army. In Africa, for instance, PMC fighters helped secure control over valuable minerals and gemstones, which proved lucrative for Prigozhin's firms. Putin's vision entailed having the Prigozhin PMCs operate under the Ministry of Defense's overarching control but not formally be part of the Russian military, thereby avoiding responsibility (including for numerous war crimes). However, this approach faced two problems from the outset. Firstly, the Americans regarded the “musicians” as a legitimate target, as demonstrated by the Deir ez-Zor incident, which resulted in significant losses for the Wagnerites. Secondly, the lack of proper military discipline led to issues when the “musicians” were required to cooperate with the regular army.

The exact cause of the GRU's ultimate separation from Prigozhin remains unknown. It is unclear whether the General Staff sought to exert greater control over the mercenaries or if the primary motivation was to divert profits from this burgeoning global enterprise into their own coffers. Nonetheless, the GRU commenced forming their own PMC.

Competitors

Deputy head of the GRU, General Vladimir Alekseev, spearheaded the establishment of the new PMC, dubbed “Redut” [Redoubt]. (The Insider previously covered Alekseev in an exposé about the Silk Road Rally). He appointed his close associate, 54-year-old Anatoli Karazi, to lead the new organization. Some sources suggest that Karazi is related to Alekseev.

Anatoly Karazii, head of PMC Redut
Anatoly Karazii, head of PMC Redut

Many friends knew Karazii as a biker (he introduced himself to them as “Vladimir”); it was less widely known that he was head of intelligence for the Wagner PMC.

In August 2021, Karazii eagerly pursued his mission and commenced scouting for training grounds in Crimea, Volgograd, and Tambov. He sourced recruits from both among the “musicians” and from raw recruits being trained at the 16th GRU Special Forces Brigade located near Tambov.

By January 2022, Karazii had successfully recruited several thousand former “musicians” to the Redut PMC, enraging Prigozhin who saw Karazii as pandering to the GRU. Prigozhin demanded an explanation and was invited to the office on Khoroshevsky highway at the end of January 2022. According to a GRU source, at first Prigozhin threatened Alexeyev that he would “finish off” Karazii if he didn't stop recruiting “musicians” for the Redut PMC. In response, Alexeyev allegedly brought Prigozhin to another office where Karazii was already waiting, and offered to sort things out on the spot. Prigozhin was taken aback and backtracked, saying he was misunderstood. Prigozhin did lose that battle but remained determined not to give up.

Defeat of the Redut PMC

Alekseev's plan envisioned the Redut PMC playing a decisive role in the initial days of the invasion of Ukraine. It has been suggested that this group of fighters may have included a team in Kyiv whose mission was to assassinate President Zelensky on the day of the invasion.

Having fallen out of favor, Prigozhin was relegated to a minor role. Based on the metadata of Alexeyev's phone calls, it appears that Prigozhin attempted to reach him on February 20, the day before the invasion, but Alexeyev did not answer the call or return it. Prigozhin was only able to speak to him on the day of the invasion, but their conversation lasted less than two minutes.

On February 24, General Alekseyev anticipated a triumph, but things did not go as planned, as often happened to him. The Western and Ukrainian special services knew many of the GRU's plans in advance, which rendered the surprise tactics useless. The first days of the invasion resulted in catastrophic losses for the Russian troops, especially for Redut, which allegedly lost up to 90% of its forces. Consequently, General Alekseyev lost control over the newly formed PMC in a matter of days. Although the GRU has not abandoned the idea of new PMCs, they have not restored Alexeev's former strength since then. In fact, they are also in charge of Gasprom's PMC Potok [Flow].

Revenge

It became evident by March 2022 that the strategy of capturing Kyiv by force had failed, and the conflict could not be resolved solely through the use of special forces, despite the promises made by Margarita Simonyan. On March 19, the “musicians” under Prigozhin's command entered into action, and on the same day, there was a noticeable increase in phone activity between Alexeyev and Prigozhin. This time, Alexeyev was the one who initiated the call.

In April, the situation deteriorated as the encirclement of Kyiv failed and troops were redirected to eastern Ukraine, where they became embroiled in a lengthy positional war. However, this presented an opportunity for Prigozhin to take the initiative. Using his “access to the body” (the chance to personally meet with Putin, which had previously been exclusive and became a unique opportunity after the start of a full-scale war when the circle of those allowed to communicate narrowed to a dozen security officials), Prigozhin was able to prove his usefulness. He was granted permission to publicly acknowledge his involvement with the Wagner PMC and to begin openly recruiting through posters on the streets, advertisements in state media (mainly regional); he was also allowed to recruit convicts. Having been being himself twice convicted (for assaulting women on the streets of Leningrad and pulling off their boots), Prigozhin was able to connect with criminals; he toured penal colonies, recruiting fighters. By the summer, he had already gathered several thousand recruits, including “musicians” who had returned from Africa, Syria, and other regions.

By September, the Kremlin was in panic mode as Ukraine launched a large-scale counteroffensive and Putin was forced to declare a mobilization, despite his earlier promises. At this critical juncture, Prigozhin's convicts came to the rescue as cannon fodder on the front lines. Meanwhile, Prigozhin found an unexpected ally in Ramzan Kadyrov, who openly criticized the military leadership for retreating in September. Kadyrov continued his attack in October, targeting General Lapin, the head of the Army at the time, and ultimately leading to Lapin's dismissal at the end of the month. It is unclear whether Kadyrov acted on his own or was involved in Kremlin intrigues, but the General Staff found themselves under pressure from both Prigozhin and Kadyrov.

In November, the Defense Ministry was forced to make an embarrassing “goodwill gesture” and retreat from Kherson, which angered the segment of the Russian public supporting the war. Prigozhin used his network of Telegram channels, which were presented as a group of “war correspondents,” as well as trash sites, to actively fuel this negative sentiment. In January 2023, Prigozhin reached the pinnacle of his career, announcing the capture of Soledar by the Wagner PMC. Although Soledar had a population of only 10,000 people during peacetime and was not as significant as Kherson, it was important for Prigozhin to demonstrate that while the Defense Ministry was retreating from towns, the Wagnerites were capturing them. Even Kadyrov and his “Tik-Tok troops,” who had used every opportunity to report on their successes, had not accomplished anything similar in recent months.

Dizzy with success

As of the start of 2023, Prigozhin's high-profile public relations tactics had garnered international attention, with foreign analysts seriously discussing his “political ambitions.” Some viewed him as a potential rival to Putin, while others considered him a possible successor. Prigozhin himself appeared to have become convinced of his own greatness. Previously, despite his desperate efforts, he had been unable to overthrow Governor Beglov of St. Petersburg, but now he was attempting to take on Shoigu himself, a man with whom Putin spent every vacation and communicated more closely than with Alina Kabayeva.

Prigozhin understood that the seizure of Soledar could not be marketed as a grand military achievement, and he instead aimed for Bakhmut. Bakhmut was not actually a location of high strategic importance, but Prigozhin transformed the chronicle of its storming into a popular television series. Even state-run television channels believed that this was the new Stalingrad, and started tracking the slow progress of the Wagnerites, anticipating the city's rapid surrender. If the “musicians” had managed to take the city and advance, Prigozhin would have gained significant strength. However, Prigozhin had only a few skilled fighters, and the conscripts and recruits, who advanced into Ukrainian positions like zombies, often without even basic body armor, were helpless where it was necessary to capture well-fortified positions. Progress in Bakhmut gradually slowed and soon ground to a complete halt. By the end of April, Prigozhin realized that he simply had no manpower or weaponry to win at Bakhmut.

Despite being aware of his defeat, Prigozhin could not bring himself to acknowledge it and instead staged a spectacle, filming the corpses of his men and publicly blaming Shoigu and Gerasimov for the lack of shells. There had indeed been a disruption in the supply of shells and it affected the entire front line for several months. However, the truth was that Prigozhin's real problem was not a shortage of shells but a lack of manpower, and Shoigu had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Prigozhin had planned to portray his withdrawal from Bakhmut as a result of betrayal by the Ministry of Defense and to exit gracefully by handing over his positions to his supposed ally, Kadyrov. However, Kadyrov, fully aware of where the power lay, unexpectedly criticized Prigozhin's actions. While he was ready to take positions in Bakhmut “in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense”, he believed that his “brother” had acted wrongly, and promised to direct his people to advise “Zhenya” on the correct behavior. Following this, Western analysts, who had recently speculated about Prigozhin being a rival to Putin, were now predicting with equal certainty that Prigozhin's downfall was imminent.

Epilogue

Prigozhin remains hopeful of regaining his lost momentum and continues to recruit despite being banned from prisons. The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive works in his favor since the Kremlin is in dire need of resources and requires the Wagnerites. However, it appears that Prigozhin's heyday is behind him. He has limited resources left, his conflicts with the Defense Ministry (and now with Kadyrov) have become a significant burden, and his controversial portrayal of the naive “grandfather who turned out to be a complete asshole” may be his downfall. While the predictions of harsh retribution by some Western analysts may not be realistic, Prigozhin could indeed fall out of favor and follow the path of Girkin, who was initially hailed as a hero in the first few months of the war but eventually vanished from the media space as if he had never existed.

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