Whispers of Russian Shadow Army Boss Replacing Putin Draw a Response
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has made a name for himself by having his men kill as many Ukrainians as they can on behalf of President Vladimir Putin—but some analysts now say he’s actually vying for the president’s throne.
“Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be using his influence in Russia’s mainstream media landscape to present himself as a contender in Russia’s 2024 presidential elections,” the D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War said Tuesday.
Analysts at the think tank argued that in a recent video interview with Russian journalists, the mercenary boss seemed to “mimic the way that Russian President Vladimir Putin films his choreographed public meetings, either to mock Putin quietly or to suggest subtly that Prigozhin could become Russian president like Putin.”
He has also taken steps to set himself apart from the “elite” in the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry, analysts note, bucking the narrative of Russia being at war against Nazis and NATO and routinely criticizing top military officials.
“Prigozhin’s recent behavior—regardless of its intent—is advancing a narrative among Russian society that Prigozhin has larger political aspirations in Russia,” ISW wrote.
Witnesses Unravel the Chinese Mass Murder Mystery That Could Ruin Putin
The Kremlin-linked businessman—known as the mastermind commanding Russia’s vast network of internet trolls long before he ever admitted to his role in Wagner—has denied any political aspirations.
Asked by a journalist Wednesday if he did indeed have his sights set on political office, he blew a gasket: “A law is urgently needed. So that anyone who says ‘political ambitions’ is immediately shot on the spot.”
But on the same day, he threw his support behind an enemy of the Kremlin in a move that appeared designed to portray him as a noble leader standing up for ordinary people who’ve been trampled by the country’s elite (a common theme in all of his recent public remarks).
In a letter to prosecutors in the Tula region, Prigozhin stood up for Alexei Moskalev, a single father sentenced to two years in prison earlier this week for supposedly “discrediting” the Russian military. Moskalev was arrested on the charges just a day after his then-12-year-old daughter drew an anti-war picture in school.
Calling the sentence against Moskalev “unjust,” Prigozhin appealed to prosecutors to re-examine the case so that Moskalev’s daughter isn’t forced to live in an orphanage.
“Wagner fighters defend the interests of the Russian Federation and die with honor for our Motherland and the future of our children. After the death of many of our comrades, their families, wives, and children are left behind. Often these children, having no other relatives, end up in orphanages. We believe that this is a great tragedy for Russia and the future of our country,” Prigozhin wrote, conveniently omitting the many children orphaned at the hands of his own private army.
The move quickly won praise from pro-Kremlin pundits.
“Prigozhin is an absolutely brilliant person who, unlike the faceless ‘technocrats,’ has read Dostoevsky and understands that the defense of the ‘humiliated and insulted’ is something that always resonates in the Russian heart. And the ‘technocrat,’ who is devoid of any compassion, the Russian people will always despise and hate,” wrote propagandist Sergei Mardan.
Report Signals Humiliating End for Russia’s Shadow Army in Ukraine
Prigozhin’s appeal to prosecutors also came across as a thumb in the eye of the Kremlin, which recently sidelined him from his prison-recruitment scheme for Ukraine and has appeared to try and rein in his growing influence.
While Prigozhin played the compassionate rescuer, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, defended the ruling against Moskalev earlier Wednesday and took a jab at his “lamentable” parenting skills.
Apart from the prospects of Prigozhin trying to style himself as the country’s next leader, however, some see another explanation for his recent moves.
“Prigozhin is weak, he has run afoul of everyone and lost food supplies to the army, and he is forced to advertise his activities on porn sites. I think in the near future he should head to Africa and it’s unlikely that he will last long physically—he’ll be poisoned or shot or there will be an accident,” Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, said in an interview earlier this week.
She said his actions show he is “hysterical” because he is losing power.
“We were seriously talking recently about the fact that he can influence not only Russian, but also global politics—and now he is being swept under a bench. … It’s a disgraceful, naturally determined end, and I really hope that some other similar low-life will not come and take his place.”
Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.
Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.