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Russia: The Nine Lives of Yevgeny Prigozhin

The Wagner chief returns to Russia to retrieve his seized guns and money, as Vladimir Putin forgives and forgets

6 mins read
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group military company, arrives at a funeral ceremony in Moscow, Russia, on April 8, 2023.(AP PHOTO)

As Yevgeny Prigozhin was seizing Rostov-on-Don and marching on Moscow, during his 36-hour insurrection, the Russian Interior Ministry was raiding his palatial home, discovering the wealth and paraphernalia of the world’s most famous mercenary. Footage of the raid brought to mind the arrest of a major cocaine trafficker, as masked Russian special operations police tore through Prigozhin’s sumptuous St. Petersburg villa. The officers were armed with black submachine guns and, presumably, loyalty to Vladimir Putin, as the Russian dictator faced down the single greatest threat to his rule in over two decades in power.

However, Russian police inexplicably failed to detain the rebel himself. Instead, Prigozhin was offered amnesty in a deal negotiated by Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, in which he withdrew himself and his Wagner forces to neighboring Belarus in exchange for immunity from arrest and prosecution. After that, Prigozhin disappeared from sight for about a week, until today, when he resurfaced in Russia, of all places. 

Evidently, Prigozhin’s brief Belarusian exile is over, something confirmed by President Lukashenko at a news conference today. Lukashenko insisted that Prigozhin was safe, and that Putin wasn’t going to kill him. “What will happen to Prigozhin next?” he asked. “Well, everything happens in life. But if you think that Putin is so malicious and vindictive that he will ‘kill’ Prigozhin tomorrow, no, this will not happen.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added this curious comment about the Wagner chief’s fluid whereabouts: “The Kremlin has neither the ability nor the desire to track the movements of Prigozhin.” That’s a surprisingly detached sentiment to have about a man who very nearly toppled the Russian state only a few short days ago, particularly from someone who speaks directly for Vladimir Putin. 

This muddled response says something about the cognitive dissonance at work in the Kremlin, and the mounting complications of running an increasingly fragile wartime dictatorship that briefly appeared ready to crumble under the pressure. The immediate crisis may have passed, but the war that fueled it continues to boil hotter and hotter.

Incredibly, Yevgeny Prigozhin is not only free, but apparently walking around St. Petersburg and Moscow, having returned to Russia ostensibly to retrieve the guns, gold bullion, and boxes filled with bricks of American dollars and Russian rubles, totaling some $111 million in U.S. currency, that were seized earlier by the Russian security services. They also returned his special Glock handgun engraved with his name, a gift given to him by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, along with dozens of other weapons.

Neofascist chic

Police also discovered numerous other oddities at Prigozhin’s residence, including several false passports, a collection of wigs, photos of Prigozhin wearing disguises, a helicopter, and a grisly framed photograph depicting what appeared to be several decapitated heads. There were also a few of Wagner’s infamous sledgehammers, reserved for use against traitors, and kept in red velvet-lined boxes, a stark symbol of the ruthlessness of the ex-convict turned paramilitary chief’s murderous organization. 

How do we know all this? Because Russian state television has been gleefully assassinating the paramilitary chief, even as Vladimir Putin’s regime appears to be treading extraordinarily softly around a man who only days ago blasted six Russian helicopters out of the sky, along with an IL-22 airborne command post, bringing Russia to the brink of civil war.

Russian state television has used the footage to denigrate the mercenary tycoon, playing it on repeat as propagandists remarked on his lavish estate, complete with parquet floors, indoor swimming pool, and grand piano, and all the other bizarre trappings of his bloodstained career. To hear them tell it, it’s almost as if Prigozhin was not a product of Vladimir Putin’s own brutal kleptocratic regime, as if he emerged fully formed in some other parallel state. 

Regardless, it seems the Russian state is pursuing a delicate policy of destroying Prigozhin politically by smearing him in the media, even if they’re not pursuing him physically or legally, as a wounded Putin carefully navigates the threat of a treasonous populist warlord at home, even as a catastrophic foreign entanglement continues in Ukraine. Of course, Prigozhin has been an indispensable asset on the battlefields of Ukraine, raising more difficult questions for the Kremlin about the future of the conflict, and Wagner’s role in it.

In any case, it’s impossible not to wonder why Putin doesn’t simply liquidate Prigozhin. It’s not as if the Russian dictator has any compunctions about spilling blood, particularly not the blood of those he considers traitors to the Motherland, a label he’s repeatedly applied to Prigozhin. 

The simultaneous media blitz against him, combined with what appears to be Prigozhin’s complete freedom of movement within Russia, to say nothing of police returning his weapons and wealth to him, is causing no small amount of head-scratching consternation among baffled Kremlinologists and Russian elites, many of whom have been bracing for the inevitable crackdown. 

It’s hardly a sign of political strength that Prigozhin is moving freely around Russia after mounting an armed insurrection against the state. Still, Vladimir Putin has good reason to walk gingerly, and his calculations are designed to keep himself in power, above all else, and thus far, he appears to be succeeding.

Cracks in the command

There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that elements of the Russian military, including in the high command, were implicated in the failed mutiny. General Sergei Surovokin has vanished, following his hostage-like video pleading with Prigozhin to stand down, indicating that he may have had some level of support extremely high up in the Russian ranks. Sergei “General Armageddon” Surovokin hasn’t been seen since the mutiny fizzled out, and although his daughter claimed that he was “totally fine,” he has yet to reappear in public.

Likewise, Deputy Defense Minister General Yunus-bek Yevkurov, seen speaking with Prigozhin at the captured Rostov military headquarters the day of the mutiny, has also vanished from sight. U.K. Defense Ministry analysts believe that any effort by Putin to purge Russian generals suspected of disloyalty could prove disastrous to the war effort in Ukraine, exacerbating serious divisions in the Russian armed forces following the failed rebellion. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues to probe for weaknesses, albeit far slower than hoped for in the West.

Wagner’s relatively small columns were able to march to within 125 miles of Moscow, almost entirely unopposed by Russian ground forces. This certainly raises doubts for Putin about the loyalty of his soldiers during a badly mismanaged war that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties, a conflict with no end in sight. But Putin’s gone on something of a political charm offensive in the days following the failed uprising in an attempt to stabilize his shuddering regime, and things do appear to have quieted in Moscow.

After several strained televised addresses, Putin finally appeared in public, surrounded by his military officers and adorned with all the trappings of his office. After descending on a red carpet, he delivered a speech in which he revealed that Wagner was entirely funded by the Kremlin, to the tune of several billion dollars, after years of denying that the Russian state had any involvement with the mercenary group. 

Later, Putin appeared to visit a cheering crowd in the southern city of Derbent, Dagestan, kissing a woman on the forehead and soaking in the adoration of what was clearly a carefully choreographed display meant to look like a spontaneous expression of love and support for the Russian dictator. It was doubly bizarre because Putin has been locked down since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, kept safe behind a maze of PCR tests and quarantines for anyone seeking rare face time with him. 

His isolation has been exemplified by the absurdly long tables where he receives foreign leaders, and his visit to Derbent was an exceedingly rare public appearance for a dictator increasingly seen as utterly detached and disconnected from the people he leads. He apparently felt he needed to show Russia that he retains the support of the public, particularly after widely circulated footage of Prigozhin being wildly cheered on by civilians in Rostov on his way out of the city, something Putin clearly hoped to refute.

Nevertheless, these were the acts of a seasoned politician, one who’s kept himself at the apex of Russian power for more than two decades. He may be damaged by the bloody quagmire in Ukraine and wounded by the Wagner mutiny, but he remains a consummate and formidable political survivor, and it would be unwise to count him out now. 

The Russian historian Stephen Kotkin calls Putin’s regime “hollow yet still strong,” and it’s unclear what exactly might finally bring an end to this unholy regime. For his part, Putin has little choice but to fight on to the bitter end, particularly after being indicted for war crimes. The only way he’ll leave power voluntarily is in a pine box, perhaps replaced by someone even more dangerous.

Alexander Ziperovich

Alexander Ziperovich is a Political analyst and Opinion columnist. He writes about politics, justice, foreign affairs, and culture, dissecting the larger historical and social context behind important events.

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