A new generation of hard-liners is emerging, surpassing even Putin’s old guard in their aggression. Of these, the most prominent is Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Who will replace Vladimir Putin? After 23 years as President and reported to be in ill health, Kremlin watchers are beginning ask the question: “who” and “when”. Like most dictators, Putin has been careful not to have an appointed successor, always surrounding himself with weak sycophants. Strong minions can be dangerous. As a result, the question of succession weighs heavily these days in the minds of the Russian elite, especially as most now realise that in attacking Ukraine more than ten months ago, Putin made a catastrophic blunder. With the invasion failing all along the 800-mile front and the Russian leader searching for culprits, a battle for the leadership among the various factions is quietly underway, with few heads appearing above the parapet for fear of being blown away.
So who’s in the running? Setting aside Russia’s total defeat in Ukraine and the subsequent chaos and collapse of the regime, there are those elite around Putin who have always trusted him and who would have the most to gain in a smooth transition. Nikolai Patrushev, the current head of the Security Council and one of the chief ideologues of the regime, is often mentioned as a potential successor. But he is the same age as Vladimir Putin, his close friend since the time they were KGB colleagues in Leningrad in the mid-1970s, so is an unlikely candidate. More likely would be Patrushev’s son, 46-year-old Dmitry, currently serving as Russia’s Minister of Agriculture, who would be seen as a fresh face. Others mentioned are Dmitry Medvedev, the former Prime Minister and President, now known as the “Clown Prince” on account of his absurd statements on Ukraine; Sergei Kirienko, the deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin; Sergei Sobyanin, the 64-year-old Mayor of Moscow since 2010; and the current Prime Minister, the moderate 56-year-old Mikhail Mishustin, likely to be welcomed by the West. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was for long considered a likely successor to Vladimir Putin, but his star quickly waned when Russia began to lose the war in Ukraine.
For as long as his health holds, Vladimir Putin still sits atop the Russian system unchallenged because of the strong loyalty of those around him. But as the war drags on, Russian power dynamics are shifting in subtle and unexpected ways and new faces are appearing. A new generation of hard-liners is emerging, surpassing even Putin’s old guard in their aggression. Of these, the most prominent is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a tycoon whose vast wealth comes from Kremlin catering contracts (hence the nickname “Putin’s Chef”) and whose notoriety comes from ownership of Russia’s most famous private mercenary company, Wagner, as well as St Petersburg’s best known “troll factory”, the Internet Research Agency.
There are few details about Prigozhin’s early life. Records show that in his 20s he spent 9 years in prison for robbery, fraud and involving teenagers in prostitution. After release in 1990 he set up a fast-food business which later evolved into a restaurant and catering empire. Taking advantage of the new opportunities after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he expanded into fashionable eateries which attracted the attention of the criminal and political elite. A regular patron of his New Island floating restaurant at the time was the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.
Following Putin to Moscow, Prigozhin was awarded catering contracts for hospitals, public schools and the Russian army. In 2012, his companies obtained over 90% of catering contracts in military units. In 2014, Prigozhin founded the Wagner Group, a company which evolved out of a network of private security companies run by former Russian Special Forces. Soldiers from the Wagner Group were used to reinforce Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as in Ukraine’s Donbass after the Russian-fuelled war broke out there later that year.
After President Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February, Wagner mercenaries fought alongside regular Russian forces, playing a central role in the capture of the port of Mariupol and the city of Severodonetsk. Russia’s military collapse in Ukraine has only magnified the role of Prigozhin’s private army. In only 10 months of war, the Russian military has lost more generals and high-ranking officers than it did in seven years in Syria or the Soviets did in the entire 10-year-war in Afghanistan. Worse, many of the hundred thousand or so casualties hail from the best-trained, most elite units: airborne troops, naval infantry and combined arms. Grasping the opportunity, Prigozhin is now transforming the Wagner Group into an actual shadow military force, with access to advanced weapons and platforms, such as Su-25 attack aircraft and T-90 tanks. In Belgorod and Kursk, two regions in Russia close to the border with Ukraine, Prigozhin has established parallel military structures, including training facilities and recruitment centres. According to the US national security spokesman, John Kirby, Prigozhin’s Wagner group is emerging as a rival power centre to the Russian military itself.
A further sign of Prigozhin’s increasing power and influence is that he now has the authority to commute prison sentences and turn them into death sentences. He has taken tens of thousands of Russian convicts out of their cells and placed them in assault sections on the Ukrainian front. They have little chance of escape. This all started in July when Prigozhin toured prison colonies to attract recruits. Footage appeared on social media showing him addressing a large group of prisoners all wearing navy-coloured uniforms assembled in a concrete yard. He tells them that their sentences would be commuted if they served in Ukraine for six months – but that anyone who changes their mind would be shot as a deserter. ‘I’m taking you out alive’, he is heard saying, ‘but don’t always return you alive’. Jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, confirmed last week that Prigozhin had visited his prison to recruit convicts. He had offered them a pardon if they survived six months with Wagner and that between 80 and 90 of them accepted, after being given just five minutes to consider the offer.
Losses are believed to be appalling. Altogether some 40,000 of Wagner Group’s estimated 50,000 members are convicts, and of the first batch of 500 prisoners sent to the front line in July, only two are believed to be still alive. “It seems as though Prigozhin is willing to throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder”, said Kirby last week. “About 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in recent weeks, and we believe that 90 percent of those were convicts.” This, of course, is of no concern to Prigozhin, who is simply providing cannon fodder for his friend Vladimir Putin.
Following years of denial, Prigozhin final stepped out of the shadows only in September, following the release of that video on social media showing him personally recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine. He revealed for the first time that he owned Wagner Group, which in early November opened its official headquarters in St Petersburg. He also publically bragged about the influence of his IRA ‘troll factory’ which had interfered in the US midterm elections. The IRA had been implicated in a conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections, which brought Donald Trump to power. As a result, last year the FBI put Prigozhin on its most-wanted list.
Whether Prigozhin can turn his rising star into a political career is an open question. His criticism of the way the war on Ukraine is being waged has struck a chord in Russian nationalist and military-security circles, and there is little doubt that he expects to be rewarded. He is establishing himself as a political force, using the popular status of Wagner and the IRA to critique his opponents within elite circles and institutionalise his authority. Like most aspiring politicians he plays down any ambition. “I do not strive for popularity”, he was quoted as saying recently. “My task is to fulfil my duty to the motherland, and today I do not plan to found any political parties, let alone go into politics.” A sure sign he intends to.
The final word can be given to Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert on Russian politics and senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “In terms of his influence, at least in the public space, Prigozhin is beginning to resemble Rasputin at the court of Nicholas II. Naturally, many are now thinking about whether this person is, say, the next presidential candidate or the figure who can enter the highest spheres of politics.”
Unless Prigozhin suffers the fate of Rasputin, which would please many of his enemies, the rise and rise of Putin’s Chef looks unstoppable.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.