In recent days, the boss of the Russian private military company Wagner seems to have gone into social media meltdown, flooding his Telegram channel and other accounts with ever-more outrageous and provocative statements.
Among other things, Prigozhin revealed an apparently humiliating battlefield setback for Russia, saying a Russian brigade had “fled” around the eastern city of Bakhmut, threatening his troops with encirclement by Ukrainian forces.
Earlier in the week, Prigozhin marred Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations with public and profanity-laced criticisms of the country’s top military brass.
And then there was a more cryptic comment that raised eyebrows on social media. Continuing a longstanding public complaint that Russia’s uniformed military was starving his troops of shells, Prigozhin suggested that the higher-ups were dithering while Wagner fighters died.
A political operator: The Wagner boss has seen his political star rise in Russia in recent months as his fighters seemed to be the only ones capable of delivering tangible battlefield progress in the grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. And he has used his social media clout to lobby for what he wants, including those sought-after ammunition supplies.
But amid those successes — particularly in the meat grinder of Bakhmut — Prigozhin has revived and amplified a feud with Russia’s military leadership. A canny political entrepreneur, Prigozhin has cast himself as a competent, ruthless patriot — in contrast with Russia’s inept military establishment.
It may seem surprising in a country where criticizing the military can potentially cost a person a spell in prison that Prigozhin gets away with strident criticism of Putin’s generals. But Putin presides over what is often described as a court system, where infighting and competition among elites is in fact encouraged to produce results, as long as the “vertical of power” remains loyal to and answers to the head of state.
A step too far? But Prigozhin’s online tantrums seem to be crossing the line to open disloyalty, some observers say.
In a recent Twitter thread, the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said, “If the Kremlin does not respond to Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin it may further erode the norm in Putin’s system in which individual actors can jockey for position and influence (and drop in and out of Putin’s favor) but cannot directly criticize Putin.”
Speculation then centers on whether Prigozhin is politically expendable, whether his outbursts are a sort of clever deception operation — or, more troublingly for Putin, whether the system of loyalty that keeps the Kremlin running smoothly is starting to break down.