The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the foul-mouthed outbursts from Putin’s warlord show

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head the Wagner mercenary group, arrives at a funeral ceremony in Moscow on April 8. (AP)
5 min

Vladimir Putin’s international warlord in chief — the convicted criminal Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner Group, a mercenary army — has lately cast a spotlight on the deepening fissures in Moscow’s military apparatus. In just the first half of May, his self-promoting pronouncements have left the impression of not just the regime’s disarray but also its potential disintegration.

First Mr. Prigozhin threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut his Wagner mercenaries, many of them convicted prisoners fighting on the promise that they would be freed if they survived that grinding battle in eastern Ukraine, the longest and bloodiest of the past 15 months of Russia’s illegal war. Then he rescinded the threat. Then he reiterated it.

In the process, he took what was widely interpreted as a public swipe at Mr. Putin, his patron — although the target could also have been Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — referring to a certain unnamed “geezer” who must be “a complete moron.” (This is one of the less offensive possible translations.) In one foul-mouthed social media assault, he accused both Gen. Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s army chief, whom he called “scum,” of starving his Wagner forces of ammunition, the ostensible rationale for his original threat to pull them off the front lines, where they have been used as cannon fodder.

“Shoigu! Gerasimov!” Mr. Prigozhin fulminated, standing next to a macabre backdrop of dozens of piled corpses, ostensibly those of Wagner soldiers slaughtered in Bakhmut. “These are somebody’s [expletive] fathers and somebody’s sons! ... They came here as volunteers and are dying for you so that you can have a wealthy life.”

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Mr. Prigozhin is a gangster whose outbursts represent a political sideshow against the backdrop of Mr. Putin’s ruinous war in Ukraine. They have inspired debates about whether Mr. Putin tolerates, encourages or suffers the lurid public feuding.

Arguably, Mr. Prigozhin — long known as Mr. Putin’s chef, for the government catering contracts that made him rich — is a convenience for the Russian tyrant, providing him with a counterbalance to the regular military and any potential threat it might pose to the regime. Yet while the Wagner Group is a small piece of Russia’s overall deployment in Ukraine, its troops have done a disproportionate share of the fighting and dying in Bakhmut, the only place where Moscow’s forces have made territorial gains since autumn. Bakhmut fell over the weekend after months of brutal fighting and is now controlled by the Russians, thanks largely to Wagner’s troops. But Ukrainians have advanced in the suburbs, pushing Moscow’s troops back several miles. U.S. intelligence estimates that of the more than 100,000 Russian casualties since December around Bakhmut, including 20,000 dead, about half are Wagner soldiers.

And Mr. Prigozhin has helped cast the Kremlin’s influence far beyond Ukraine. Wagner troops have exploited mining, timber and other industries in Africa and elsewhere, flexing Russia’s muscle and making a fortune for Mr. Prigozhin, memorialized by Wagner’s gleaming skyscraper headquarters in St. Petersburg.

The Prigozhin spectacle, amplified by the media platforms and channels he controls, is nonetheless a symptom of the regime’s dysfunction and mismanagement of the war, and it raises questions about Mr. Putin’s grip on power. It should also transmit some lessons about Russia to the West.

One is about the Kremlin’s disastrous leadership, which has been inflexible, ill-informed and incoherent, a major reason for the Russian military’s sclerotic performance on the battlefield and the invasion’s strategic failure. Russian military bloggers have documented those failures with withering accounts of the armed forces’ blunders — effectively the only remaining facsimile of free media in Russia — though they carefully exempt Mr. Putin himself from blame.

Already through 15 months of full-scale war, Mr. Putin has shuffled and reshuffled his military top brass. That, along with poor planning, logistics and supplies, has fed Russian troops’ abysmal morale and depleted fighting ability.

Another takeaway from the domestic criticism of Russia’s military performance, amplified by Mr. Prigozhin’s public invective, is that all is not calm among Russia’s elites. And if restiveness continues to mount in this critical constituency in Mr. Putin’s regime, the result might easily be growing instability in Moscow, which the West is likely to exploit.

There are several conceivable dangers in that scenario. They include the impossibility of predicting who might succeed Mr. Putin if he were to fall from power, or whether that successor would represent a greater or lesser threat to international stability. And in any shake-up in the Kremlin, questions would be raised about the security and chain of command of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the world’s biggest.

The West, then, should proceed with due caution — but also a sense of opportunity. If the United States and its allies can further pressure Russian elites — for example, by cracking down on the bankers, lawyers and others who service them — the pressure on Mr. Putin to end the war will grow further.

Russia’s army in Ukraine might not collapse anytime soon; it might be able to hold its deeply entrenched positions in the face of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. But the jockeying pitting Mr. Prigozhin against Russia’s top brass, which makes a mockery of command unity, reflects the rot of a regime for which cynicism, repression, lies and violence are defining features.

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