Image credit: Asatur Yesayants / Shutterstock.com
Over the past few weeks, pundits in Russian and Western media have been buzzing about the increased political visibility of Yevgeny Prigozhin—most widely known as a founder of the Wagner Group, a mercenary army fighting in Ukraine on the Russian side.
In late January, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, in which he called Prigozhin a “dangerous competitor” to Putin’s power. “Mr. Prigozhin may challenge the president, and Mr. Putin may no longer be able to oppose his former chef,” said Zygar. Another recent New York Times piece mentions that “some analysts believe that Mr. Prigozhin could yet turn on Mr. Putin.” Newsweek quoted an expert who believed that Prigozhin would “eventually stand up to the Russian leader.” Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist, said in a conversation with the Insider that Prigozhin may impose the risk of a far-right coup in Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and opposition activist, went even further, speculating about a military junta that Prigozhin and other Putin’s potential opponents might head.
But does Prigozhin really pose a growing threat to Putin’s power?
It’s certainly true that Prigozhin has become increasingly visible in the Russian and Western media. This has largely been due to his activity in Ukraine: in the summer of 2022, he began openly recruiting Russian prisoners in his Wagner army. He promised pardons and freedom in exchange for service in Ukraine. Shortly afterwards, he admitted publicly, for the first time, that he had created the Wagner Group in 2014. Up until then, he had sued journalists who linked him to the private military company. But now Prigozhin regularly reports on Wagner’s “successes” in Ukraine—and sometimes even openly criticizes Russia’s top military leadership.
It’s no wonder that the United States in January of this year designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization, as a result of its activities in Africa and the Middle East as well as Ukraine. This enabled the Treasury Department to freeze Wagner’s assets in the United States and ban American citizens from supporting the private army financially.
In any case, long before the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Prigozhin was quite active in Russian politics, even if he preferred to stay in the shadows. Over the past 20 years, he has managed to build a business empire. His Concord Management and Consulting group specializes in the restaurant business, catering, and construction. Prigozhin got a significant part of the profit through government contracts—for example, he supplied food to Moscow schools. He provided catering services to the top Russian officials; this is how he became famous as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin is also associated with a series of online troll factories spreading disinformation. It’s quite a turnaround for someone who served a criminal sentence for theft and fraud in the 1980s.
Because of Prigozhin’s apparent influence and his wide net of assets, it’s tempting to suppose that he might someday rival or replace Putin. But it’s a mistake to apply the patterns of liberal democracies to an analysis of Russian politics. Russia is currently an autocracy, where the legitimacy of a “formidable tzar” plays an important role. In this context, almost all of Prigozhin’s apparent power derives from his proximity to Putin.
In Western political systems, resources and powers are distributed among institutions of the state and different political figures. Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is in many ways a continuation of a centuries-old Russian tradition of one-man rule. In this paradigm, the task of the leader is clearing independent players from the political field and turning them into controlled functionaries.
This is exactly the role that Prigozhin has skillfully played for many years. Despite many problems related to the ongoing war in Ukraine, Putin is still perceived as a strong—and, therefore, legitimate—leader by many Russians. To some extent, this includes Yevgeny Prigozhin. Yes, he has openly criticized some military officials, but never Putin himself. So long as Putin retains his legitimacy as a “strong leader” (or a “formidable tzar”), it is extremely premature to talk about an impending coup or a threat from Prigozhin or anyone else.
Since Putin came to power, the Russian political space is open only to actors that Putin tolerates, Daniel Kotsyubinsky, a historian from the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, said in a phone conversation with Public Seminar. “These actors subsist on the Kremlin’s resources: finances and the opportunity to legally engage in public political activity. As soon as the Kremlin no longer needs someone, they lose their money and freedom, and sometimes even their lives.” Kotsyubinsky thinks that the threat coming from Prigozhin is contrived: “Prigozhin cannot be considered either as a successor or as a competitor to Putin. He is completely Putin’s creature and his faithful guarantor. He does not have any independent resources to obtain supreme power—neither in terms of money, nor in terms of public opinion in Russian society.”
Russian political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov suggests that Prigozhin’s public role is not as secure as it may seem. “Prigozhin is comfortable in the role of a public figure, but the Russian political system may yet reject him. Prigozhin’s position in the apparatus peaked at the end of last year, but now it is again questionable. In this regard, Prigozhin is somewhat reminiscent of [the leader of the Russian region of Chechnya] Ramzan Kadyrov.” Though Kadyrov has sometimes been mentioned as Putin’s successor over the past few months—in part because he’s sent Chechen troops to Ukraine—he serves at Putin’s guarantor, as does Prighozhin.
Throughout Putin’s presidency, a number of Russian movements and political figures have been viewed as a threat to the regime. Putin managed to control these threats. For a long time, some journalists believed that Russia’s nationalist movement, which gained popularity in the 2000s, would become an uncontrollable force threatening Putin. Ultimately, associations such as the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) were banned as extremist groups in Russia in 2007 and 2011, respectively. In the late 2010s, DPNI leaders were sentenced to prison terms.
During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (2008–2012), some analysts seriously discussed the danger to Putin posed by the new president. The threat was a delusion: in 2012, Putin returned to the presidency. It became obvious that there was no political struggle at all, and the status of a real autocrat remained with Putin, even during Medvedev’s term.
Similarly, no political revolt occurred in Russia during the time of Alexei Navalny’s political activity as an opposition leader, although some Western experts pinned their hopes on him. During 2011–2021, Navalny had access to significant resources—from finance to a network of headquarters around the entire country. The protests organized by Navalny were becoming more and more vehement, with the police responding with violence. Then Navalny himself was poisoned, and nearly killed, in August 2020. The next year, the Kremlin banned Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist group, and Navalny ended up in a Russian prison.
It seems that the search for Putin’s successor or competitor has become a traditional activity for Russian and Western journalists and political scientists. None of these wishful-thinking predictions about Putin’s demise have come true. Whatever broad powers Putin grants to Kadyrov, Prigozhin, or anyone else, he continues to wield the power of an autocrat.
In this context, Prigozhin plays the role of just another prominent corrupt political figure who commands the attention of the media for a while using his proximity to the president. Any attempt by him to challenge Putin’s power directly would likely backfire. And so far, “Putin’s chef” doesn’t seem like someone inclined to commit political—or even literal—suicide.
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.