June 27, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Putin disparages Prigozhin but won’t say his name

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to present Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society. Putin implied on June 27 that “the owner of Concord company” (the Concord company is the parent company of Prigozhin’s catering company) lied about the Wagner Group private military company’s (PMC) independence from the Kremlin and the lack of state compensation for Wagner personnel. Putin publicly claimed for the first time since Wagner’s founding that the Kremlin “fully funds” and “fully supplies” the Wagner PMC and claimed that the Kremlin made various payments to Wagner personnel and their families from Russia’s federal budget. Putin added that “the owner of the Concord Company” received 80 billion rubles (about $936 million) between May 2022 and May 2023 for delivering and catering food to the Russian military, and that the Kremlin will investigate whether the company stole anything during its work for the Kremlin. Putin was clearly referring to Prigozhin, who is the owner of the Concord Company Group and previously worked as Putin’s personal caterer, but Putin continues to refuse to say Prigozhin’s name. Putin’s insinuation that the Kremlin will investigate the Concord Company may be preparation to justify the Kremlin’s confiscation of Prigozhin’s assets via corruption charges.

Putin is rhetorically separating Prigozhin from the Wagner PMC and is deliberately depriving Prigozhin of the title of Wagner financier to undermine his role in the Wagner PMC. The Kremlin launched an ongoing domestic information campaign in Russia to forgive Wagner fighters and commanders in an effort to lure Wagner personnel to sign contacts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). The deliberate effort to separate Prigozhin from the Wagner Group is likely intended to set informational conditions so that the Kremlin can accuse Prigozhin of corruption or conspiring with Ukraine or the West and alienate Prigozhin from Wagner personnel whom the Kremlin seeks to retain to fight in Ukraine as part of the regular Russian military. Prigozhin had built his personal brand on criticizing the Russian military command and bureaucrats for corruption and ties to Western countries, and Putin is likely attempting to shatter Prigozhin’s populist appeal by accusing him of the same sins.

Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time. Prigozhin still retains some support within Russian society and the Russian regular forces, and the Kremlin will need to ensure that these groups become disillusioned with Prigozhin to effectively deprive him of his popular support in Russia. Prigozhin campaigned for military command changes by accusing the Russian MoD of mistreating regular Russian military personnel in combat – a message that likely appealed to many servicemen and their families disillusioned with mobilization, casualties, supply shortages, and great loss of life with little to show for it. The Kremlin needs to separate Prigozhin’s cause from his persona, lest an attack on Prigozhin be perceived as a Kremlin attack on his popular narrative and his stated objectives of punishing the criminally incompetent Russian MoD leadership. The Kremlin will likely continue to attack Prigozhin’s character to break Prigozhin’s popular support, discourage Wagner personnel from following him to Belarus, and destroy his financial power.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to present Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s account of his mediation between Putin and Prigozhin on June 24-25 in tandem with Putin’s June 26 speech indicates that Putin promised Lukashenko and Prigozhin that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group would have “security guarantees” in Belarus.
  • Lukashenko likely seeks to use the Wagner Group in Belarus to buy maneuvering space to balance against the Kremlin campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State and likely seeks to closely control any Wagner Group forces that move into Belarus.
  • Lukashenko also announced on June 27 that Belarus had received an unspecified number of Russian nuclear weapons on a previous date – a development that Lukashenko may also use to balance against the Kremlin’s campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State.
  • The ongoing Putin-Lukashenko-Prigozhin powerplay is not yet over and will continue to have short-term and long-term consequences that may benefit Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin campaign to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and possibly dissolve the Wagner Group’s Ukraine force decreases the probability of Putin announcing a new round of reserve mobilization in the near term.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least four sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 27.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin identified the Ukrainian main counteroffensive effort on June 27, possibly signaling his own defensive priority.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials are signaling that Ukrainian forces are capitalizing on the armed rebellion in Russia and intensifying counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area as of June 27.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts’ administrative border area.
  • Russian milbloggers expressed concern at Ukrainian attempts to advance south of Kherson City.
  • Russian officials expressed varied opinions on the future of private military companies (PMCs) in response to the armed rebellion.
  • The UN reported that Russia has detained hundreds of Ukrainian civilians since the start of the war in Ukraine.
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