Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, and the misery of the Ukraine war has dragged some of Russia’s unusual bedfellows out of the shadows.
None more so than Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who only recently admitted what had long been an open secret – that he had founded the shadowy Wagner Group of mercenaries that have appeared in conflicts around the world.
In just the past week, Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have stepped out of the shadows, into a more public role. First, Wagner opened an ostentatious military technology center in St Petersburg, a towering building of glass and steel that is meant to incubate “patriotic” startups.
Most explosively, on the eve of the US midterm elections, Prigozhin admitted interfering in US elections, for which he was indicted by a US court in 2018.
For Prigozhin, these moves are about positioning himself within the power elite of Moscow, even though he holds no official position, and the Wagner Group as being at the forefront of a more aggressive Russia. Yet however long Prigozhin may have spent in the murky world of international mercenaries, he and his fighters are stepping out of the shadows into a much more dangerous world.
The Wagner Group has become a vital part of Russia’s unofficial foreign policy. Wagner’s mercenaries have operated in Syria and Libya, as well as other African countries like Mali and the Central African Republic, where they have been accused of committing human rights abuses.
For the Kremlin, the attraction of these groups is their lack of accountability. Wagner operates outside of the Russian state, allowing the Kremlin to deny knowledge of any operations. Despite clear evidence of cooperation and coordination between parts of the Russian state and Wagner, in particular the military and intelligence arms, the group officially has nothing to do with Moscow.
There is also a secondary, more gruesome, benefit for the Kremlin: Wagner mercenaries who die abroad don’t cause much public outcry. The Kremlin need never explain to the public why soldiers are dying in African countries, because all these soldiers are private mercenaries. (That’s why a video emerged in the autumn of Prigozhin attempting to recruit prisoners for a tour of duty in Ukraine.)
If anonymity allows him and his mercenaries such latitude, why then has Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows?
The short answer is that the war has changed a lot, inside and outside Russia.
What was previously a simmering rivalry between Russia and the West has exploded into virtually open conflict. The Kremlin clearly no longer feels the need to disguise some of the actions it was taking, like the use of mercenaries or election interference. Indeed, there is much to be gained by demonstrating that Russia has multiple ways of attacking its adversaries.
At the same time, as the war has dragged on, dissent has increased around the Kremlin. Here, Prigozhin serves as a vocal cheerleader for Putin’s decision, potentially muzzling critics simply due to his combative style. For Prigozhin himself, a higher public profile could be rewarded with a political post – perhaps even the head of the defense ministry. And, freed from operating in the shadows, Wagner could pick up lucrative state contracts.
Still, coming out of the shadows carries risks – for the Wagner Group, for Prigozhin himself and even for Vladimir Putin.
For Putin, Wagner has always been a group he could easily disavow. Criticism of the behavior of its mercenaries in African countries can be brushed off by claiming Prigozhin is merely a businessman with multiple interests who doesn’t work for the Russian government. Allegations of interference in US elections can be similarly dismissed for lack of proof.
But with Prigozhin taking a more active role, such plausible deniability fades. If Prigozhin has been indicted by US authorities, and he is now publicly admitting his involvement in election interference, how can Putin avoid even asking him about it? If Wagner’s new research facilities gain contracts from the Russian army or defense ministry, surely those ministries would at least ask about the allegations of abuse in African nations? The Russian state is free to disregard the answers or pretend to be satisfied with any denials, but the powerful shield of plausible deniability drops.
Even for Putin there are risks. If he survives the Ukraine debacle, he will face a much more aggressive West, and the admission of election interference will not be forgotten in the US. Prigozhin’s admission has put the Internet Research Agency, the online troll factory he runs, on the table for future negotiations.
Yet the most exposed person is Prigozhin himself. Unlike the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has also publicly criticized the Russian army’s performance in the war, Prigozhin does not have a republic to run, and is therefore more expendable to the Kremlin.
Some media have spoken of a clash between Prigozhin and Putin, but much of this is wishful thinking. Prigozhin is absolutely beholden to Putin – the use of mercenaries is prohibited under Russian law, so Prigozhin could be sentenced to years in jail the moment he falls out with or challenges the president.
Therein lies the greatest danger. Yes, the war has increased his popularity and his visibility. But wars have a way of turning in unexpected ways. Prigozhin has made powerful enemies by coming out of the shadows and criticizing the Russian army. Politics in Russia is a dangerous world, and Putin may well find a useful high profile cheerleader today could equally become a useful high profile scapegoat tomorrow. Even an army of mercenaries won’t protect him then.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern