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Prigozhin's Other Rebellion

Prigozhin's Other Rebellion

The Wagner leader joins a notable group of Kremlin henchmen who have undermined the state’s rationale.

Andreas Umland

Known until recently only among Eastern Europe experts, the sixty-two-year-old leader of the Kremlin-affiliated private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has become world famous. The one-day, unsuccessful but nonetheless spectacular violent show of force by the mercenary chief and his heavily armed group revealed the fragility of the Putin system. It has abruptly been proven that the Russian emperor has no clothes.

What has received less attention within the context of the uprising is Prigozhin's questioning of a central Kremlin justification for Russia's ongoing attack on Ukraine. Since February 2022, Putin and other Kremlin spokesmen have repeatedly claimed that Russia's aggression against Ukraine is a preemptive and defensive war. Even some Western observers consider Putin's claim that NATO is threatening Russia to be a legitimate argument.

In contrast, Prigozhin announced in a video message on June 23, 2023, shortly before the start of his "March for Justice" on Moscow:

Nothing extraordinary had happened on February 24, 2022. The Russian Defense Ministry is fooling the public, now pretending that Ukraine behaved insanely aggressively, as if Ukraine and all of NATO wanted to attack us. The special operation that began on February 24 has a completely different background.

Prigozhin then attacked the Russian military leadership. The latter, he said, had been bent on a quick victory in Ukraine and subsequent promotions in Moscow:

What was the war necessary for? The war took place for a bunch of crap to simply triumph, to present themselves in public and show what a strong army they are. […]  The war was not necessary for bringing back to our area de facto Russian citizens. Not for demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine. The war was necessary for a star [on the epaulette of Sergei Shoygu]. [...]

And secondly, the war was necessary for the oligarchs, it was necessary for that clan which today de facto rules Russia. This oligarchic clan receives everything possible. When foreign companies of this clan are closed, the state immediately splits up domestic companies and hands them over to this clan. That's why businessmen are imprisoned, banks are closed, so that this clan doesn't lose the volume of its funds.

Although Prigozhin here inflates secondary actors within Russian leadership to influential decision-makers in Moscow, his statement was in principle correct. Putin's escalation of war against Ukraine in February 2022 had domestic rather than foreign policy reasons.

In another provocative video message released a month earlier, Prigozhin questioned a second key item of Kremlin propaganda. On May 23, 2023, he commented via his Telegram channel about Russia's alleged "denazification" of Ukraine: "We came in rowdily and walked all over Ukraine with our boots looking for Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we spoiled it with all of them."

Such statements are not extraordinary by themselves, but they are unusual to hear coming from the lips of a pivotal implementer of Russia's war on Ukraine. The mercenary leader is effectively disavowing Moscow's official justifications for Russian aggression. Paradoxically, this also touches on the reason for the deployment of Prigozhin's Wagner Group–although it admittedly consists of fighters who wage war for money or to shorten their prison sentences rather than for some larger aim.

As a major Russian imperialist actor, Prigozhin continues an older tradition of post-Soviet nationalist politicians with his attacks against Putin. Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1946-2022) and Igor Girkin (b. 1970), for example, years earlier had already attracted attention with similarly embarrassing statements for the Kremlin. Critics of Putin’s regime from the far Right have repeatedly, publicly accused the Kremlin of lying.

In mid-September 1999, a memorable incident occurred in the Russian State Duma, later made public by Zhirinovsky. A series of terrorist attacks in Russia in 1999, attributed to Chechen terrorists, served as the Kremlin’s pretext to launch the Second Chechen War. Moscow's new war in the Caucasus was popular among the frightened Russian population. And the Russian army's campaign of mass murder in the Chechen Republic provided an important impetus for the meteoric rise of the then newly minted head of government and not yet president, Vladimir Putin.

However, the blowing up of an apartment building in the southern Russian provincial city of Volgodonsk on September 16, 1999—allegedly by Caucasian terrorists—occurred under bizarre circumstances. Three days prior, the attack had already been announced at a State Duma meeting in Moscow. Apparently, there had been a lapse in the secret planning of the building demolition in Volgodonsk and its subsequent political instrumentalization by the Federal Security Service (FSB). (Putin had headed the FSB until he became prime minister in August 1999, after which his St. Petersburg henchman Nikolai Patrushev headed the domestic intelligence service.)

In 2002, Zhirinovsky reported on the September 13, 1999 events in the Russian parliament:

A note was brought by someone from the secretariat [of the State Duma]. Apparently, they had been called to warn the Duma speaker about this turn of events [i.e., the terrorist attack]. [Parliament Speaker Gennady] Zeleznev read us the news about the explosion. Then we waited for the television news to report on the incident in Volgodonsk.

It took three days for that explosion to happen. It occurred on September 16, 1999.

Like Prigozhin in 2023, Zhirinovsky must have been aware of the explosive nature (for the Putin regime) of his statement in 2002. His assertion called into question the legitimacy, authority, and integrity of the new Russian president. Prigozhin's video messages in recent months similarly undermine Putin's rationale for Russia's 2022 large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Barely nine years earlier, there was another revelation by the notorious Russian paramilitary leader and one-time "defense minister" of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Girkin, about the 2014-2015 pseudo-civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Since the beginning of the alleged Donbas rebellion in spring 2014, there has been a controversial discussion about the start of the war in both Russian and non-Russian media and conferences. Even some Western analysts see the main sources of the armed conflict in the Donets Basin not in Russian policies, but—as also claimed by Kremlin propaganda—in Ukrainian politics.

However, in an interview for the Russian far-right weekly "Zavtra" (Tomorrow) in November 2014, Girkin revealed: "I pulled the trigger for the war. If our [armed] unit had not crossed the border [from Russia into Ukraine], everything would have turned out the way it did in [northeastern Ukraine's] Kharkiv and [southern Ukraine's] Odesa." In the latter and other Russian-speaking cities of Ukraine, unlike in the Donbas, only unarmed agents of Moscow had been active at that time. Girkin further said, "the impetus for the war, which is still going on today, was given by our [armed] unit. We shuffled all the cards that were on the table. All of them!"

What is significant about Girkin's admission is not just that, as a leader of an irregular battalion and a Russian citizen, he has no biographical or family ties to the Donets Basin. As a former Russian intelligence officer, he was in constant contact with Russian governmental bodies during his paramilitary advance in eastern Ukraine in April 2014. As detailed in Dr. Jakob Hauter's forthcoming book, Russia's Overlooked Invasion, Girkin and company acted as unofficial agents of the Russian government in its "delegated inter-state war" against Ukraine in 2014.

Like Zhirinovsky in 2002 and Prigozhin in 2023, Girkin contradicted a central Kremlin propaganda tenet in November 2014 by publicly assuming responsibility for having triggered the Russian-Ukrainian war seven months earlier. Some non-Russian commentators around the world nevertheless continue to maintain that Russia merely “intervened” in August 2014, in an intra-Ukrainian armed conflict that had already been ongoing for several months. Girkin, on the other hand, has admitted that his irregular force, that had invaded from Russia and that was supervised by Russian state organs, had triggered the allegedly civil war in Ukraine's Donets Basin in April 2014.

The particular explosiveness of Zhirinovsky, Girkin, and Prigozhin's admissions is that none of these men are liberal Muscovites or Western critics of Putin. Rather, the men are known at home and abroad as aggressive Russian imperialists. And in Prigozhin's case, there is the added fact that he is a creature of Putin. The Wagner boss owes his illustrious career entirely to his Kremlin patron.

Given these and other memorable revelations by prominent Russian ultra-nationalists, some non-Russian debates in support of Russia are surprising. In media, parliaments, ministries, universities, institutes, and political parties around the world, the Kremlin's apologetics of Russian military expansion continue to find naive takers to this day—despite many self-revealing admissions such as those of a Zhirinovsky, a Girkin, and a Prigozhin.

Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

Image: Yevgeny Prigozhin in a video message. (Telegram: @ConcordGroup_Official)

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraine