In less than a year, the leader of Wagner has emerged from the shadows so quickly that now, each of his almost daily speeches or videos meets a global echo. He is also now credited with a lot of influence and ambitions in his country, often wrongly.
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From our correspondent in Moscow,
Relayed and widely discussed in the media outside of Russia, Evgueni Prigojine’s press releases and abundant speeches are never the subject of broad public debate in Russia. And for good reason: the only two times Wagner’s name was mentioned on Russian television channels were for the conquest of Soledar in the fall of 2022 and for claiming the capture of Bakhmout. On the night of Saturday to Sunday, for the first time, the paramilitary group also had the honor of an official press release accessible to all. On the official website of the Kremlin, one could read the official congratulations of the president to Wagner for the capture of the city. These are the only official mentions.
The name of Evgueni Prigojine, his violently critical videos against the elites and especially those of the army, his flowery language… All this remains confined to a single space: that of the Telegram channels of the “turbo-patriots”, a nickname in Russia for the galaxy of Russian ultra-nationalists. These Telegram channels can be widely followed, sometimes up to several hundred thousand people, but this remains a limited audience, compared with a Russian population estimated at 143 million people.
A new notoriety
This week, a polling institute considered to be relatively independent decided to test the voting intentions of Russians for the presidential election scheduled for 2024. This process was carried out within the framework of a so-called “open” poll, i.e. say that he was not asked to choose from a list of candidates, but to name names spontaneously. Evgueni Prigojine collects 2% of the voting intentions there.
For a political scientist analyzing this survey, these brand new 2% of Evgueni Prigojine are above all the result of a new notoriety, of his talent for communication, but not the sign that he is trusted to represent the country and even less the to manage. Many believe in Russia that there would undoubtedly be a political niche for the founder of Wagner: that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who died last spring, also a fervent nationalist with flowery language. His best electoral result? 8% in 1991. Then, it continued to fall and was systematically below 5%.
How, in any case, to explain the outspokenness of Evgueni Prigojine, when in Russia, for months, the steamroller of repression no longer spares any ordinary citizen, NGO or known opponent? That for the same words, anyone would end up behind bars? Experts want to see two explanations for this. The first is of course military. On the ground, Evgueni Prigojine brings President Putin what he wants: a victory so long awaited for months, that of Bakhmout (Artëmovsk for the Russians who use its Soviet name).
Other paramilitary groups emerge
His group was reportedly called upon last spring, after the start of what the Kremlin still calls a “special operation”. But “private companies”, as we say in Russia, even if they are still illegal, there are others on the ground. We have thus recently started talking about Convoy, the one set up by the head of Crimea Sergei Axionov. It is also extremely discreet, but companies like Gazprom have also set up groups of fighters.
Alongside the regular forces, other players have wanted and been able to prove themselves useful to Vladimir Putin since last year. We obviously think of Ramzan Kadyrov. Long before the partial mobilization, the strong man of Chechnya staged his best men, those of the elite of his fighters, in the assault on Ukraine. On its territory, a military school also trains Russian volunteers.
A very singular actor, but not unique in the conflict, Evgueni Prigojine is in any case not part of the president’s inner circle, and would not be one of those, according to many experts, to have direct access to Vladimir Putin.
Its other usefulness, and this is the second explanation of its freedom of speech, would be for the Kremlin to counterbalance the power of the army. In times of conflict, by nature, it becomes more important. And there is no question that she takes too much. It would thus be, basically, a classic method of human management in the Kremlin: maintaining rivalries to better contain ambitions. The other side of the coin is obviously that it can give the feeling that the vertical of power is dulling, that presidential authority is no longer what it used to be. But everyone knows it in Russia: it is still and always Vladimir Putin who has power. And this game of rivalries, he will stop or moderate it when he has decided.
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