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Has Yevgeny Prigozhin turned on Vladimir Putin?

The head of the Wagner Group has broken a cardinal rule of Russian politics: the subordinates are fair game, but the tsar is untouchable.

By Ido Vock

“What if it turns out that grandfather is a real asshole?”

With that cryptic but charged comment, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s latest video rant seems to publicly level his criticism of Russia’s war effort directly at President Vladimir Putin. It marks yet another escalation in the public feud between the head of the Wagner Group private military company and the leadership of the Russian Defence Ministry. Prigozhin has been complaining for days that the top Defence Ministry officials have been starving Wagner of ammunition on the battlefield; however, his latest video, published on 9 May is believed to be referencing Putin in a description of a struggling war effort overseen by a “happy grandfather” who “thinks he is happy”. The use of the term “grandfather” is thought to refer to the phrase “grandpa in his bunker”, an insulting nickname for Putin spread through memes online.

In a previous video, published online on 5 May, Prigozhin gestured towards dozens of bloodied corpses lying on the ground behind him. “Those are soldiers we lost today. Their blood is still fresh,” Prigozhin said. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the f***ing ammo?” (Sergei Shoigu is the defence minister; Valery Gerasimov is the chief of the general staff.)

The Wagner Group, which includes military veterans as well as thousands of convicts, has been fighting for control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut for over six months. Wagner is in control of much of the now destroyed city, though Ukrainian resistance is holding on at its edge. In the 5 May video, Prigozhin blamed the Defence Ministry threatened to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut by 10 May.

On 7 May Prigozhin U-turned, saying Wagner would not withdraw after all in an audio message posted on the Telegram messaging app. He claimed the Defence Ministry had promised to provide ammunition and weapons. However, just two days later, he said that the Defence Ministry had threatened to charge Wagner with treason if it withdrew from Bakhmut. He added that the group had yet to receive the ammunition it was promised, saying: “They simply and brazenly deceived us.” The apparent insult aimed at Putin came the same day.

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Prigozhin’s public outbursts are a sign that the system built up by Putin is reaching its limits under the strain of the war effort in Ukraine, Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services and the author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, said. “The politics of the Putin system is built around divide and rule, multiple individuals and agencies with overlapping responsibilities, and everyone clamouring to get the favour of the president,” Galeotti said. “And this is simply a symptom of what happens when you transport the system across to the battlefield, where it absolutely isn’t working.”

[See also: Putin under pressure]

Galeotti pointed to other factions competing for favour from the government, including the armies of the pseudo-republics of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The regions were formally annexed into Russia in October 2022 but retain significant autonomy, a legacy of their previous existence since 2014 as separatist statelets. The National Guard and Chechen forces are other examples of factions in the military competing for limited resources and authority.

By pointing to the Defence Ministry, Prigozhin may be seeking to shift the blame for his forces failing to take Bakhmut. “Bakhmut was Prigozhin’s responsibility,” Aleksandar Djokic, a former assistant professor at RUDN University in Moscow, said. “Prigozhin is acting pre-emptively in a way. He’s trying to put the blame for not taking Bakhmut on Shoigu and Gerasimov, his competitors.”

The city is a symbolically important but strategically minor objective for both sides. Bakhmut has been the centre of staggeringly costly fighting over recent months. On 1 May the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the US estimates that since December, Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties, including more than 20,000 killed. Nearly half of those killed are Wagner forces, Kirby said, the majority around Bakhmut. Kirby did not provide an estimate of Ukrainian losses.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Prigozhin’s deadline for more ammunition was 10 May – the day after Russia’s Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Prigozhin would likely have been pleased with a symbolic gain from Ukraine before 9 May, which would have given him more leverage in his demands from the Defence Ministry and Putin.

It is probably true that Wagner is receiving less ammunition than it was previously. However, a general shortage of ammunition is not specific to Wagner. Ukrainian leaders have pledged a counteroffensive to try to liberate occupied territory, which Russian authorities are anticipating soon. “And because, just like the Ukrainians, they haven’t got all the ammunition they would want,” said Galeotti, “they’re introducing rationing.”

Prigozhin could be worried because although Wagner played an important role in the first months of the war, it has become increasingly marginal since Russia’s mobilisation last autumn, which significantly reduced the Russian army’s manpower shortage. He is impulsive personality and has a tendency to hold grudges against political enemies and those he believes have betrayed him. But by seeming to personally insult Putin, Prigozhin has broken a cardinal rule of Russian politics: the subordinates are fair game, but the tsar is untouchable. It is a mark of how desperate Prigozhin is that he has chosen to break this rule.

[See also: Prigozhin and the brutal methods of Russia’s Wagner group]

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