The Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin often brags about his supposedly fearless exploits on Ukraine’s battlefields, but his most reckless manoeuvre may have been at home: flying too high in the Kremlin.
For months, the founder of the Wagner group has been sparring with Russia’s military over a series of calamitous defeats in Ukraine, in what has become an epic Moscow power struggle over the war.
But in recent days Prigozhin has resorted to increasingly angry rants, a sign of what Kremlin watchers see as his waning clout in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle as the defence establishment closes ranks and reasserts its dominance.
Prigozhin this week was left to cry “treason” over the military allegedly starving his men of ammunition, ending his prison recruitment campaign and stifling praise of Wagner in state media. “There’s a risk he could end up like Icarus,” a person close to Prigozhin said.
His notoriety has in large part arisen out of the ham-fisted execution of Russia’s invasion by Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s general staff, and defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
The former caterer, who had denied only months earlier that Wagner even existed, embraced his role as the leader of an informal group of hardliners who commanded irregular forces, nursed grievances against Russia’s military leadership and were given extraordinary leeway to criticise the army in public for its shortcomings.
When rare victories came — such as capturing the town of Soledar — Prigozhin crowed that it was the achievement of Wagner recruits, much to the annoyance of the military leadership.
Among the hardliners, Prigozhin was a natural leader. His longstanding ties to Putin date back to when the then deputy mayor of St Petersburg spent evenings at his restaurant in the 1990s. It had earned Prigozhin a direct line to the Russian president, according to two people who know them.
His ascent within the Kremlin came with Putin’s personal approval after the president realised the scale of the army’s disastrous performance in Ukraine under defence minister Shoigu, according to the person close to Prigozhin.
The limelight emboldened Prigozhin so much that he set his sights on ousting Shoigu, one of Putin’s oldest allies, according to the Wagner leader’s associate and two senior western officials.
“Putin started doubting victory because he realised the generals can’t be trusted. So he started seeking out other opinions,” the person close to Prigozhin said. “If Shoigu goes, we win. Shoigu is our biggest enemy, not the Ukrainians.”
The once-shadowy figure toured prisons to recruit convicts and promised them pardons if they survived six months of combat — something only Putin has the power to do. He told them “the Russian army has shat the bed and lost everything, they are no good, and we are Putin’s hope to win this war”, the Russian independent news site Mediazona reported.
“Prigozhin had become his own centre of power. It wasn’t clear who he or Wagner reports to. And Prigozhin can call Putin directly, which most Russian generals cannot do. That was always a strength he had,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who studies the Russian armed forces.
Prigozhin’s willingness to take on Russia’s top brass won him allies among leaders of other irregular forces who shared his hatred of Shoigu and Gerasimov, the architect of the army’s failed blitzkrieg on Kyiv last February, according to two people who know him and two western officials.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, was upset at the losses elite Chechen paratrooper units sustained during an assault on Hostomel airfield outside the capital. Meanwhile, ultranationalists with ties to Russia’s separatist proxies in the Donbas thought the army’s grinding tactics had led to needlessly high casualty rates in eastern Ukraine.
Members of the Russian elite have also set up militias in a fashion after Wagner’s, according to current and former western officials. “This is a patchwork military effort,” a former senior US official said. “It’s sort of like the Spanish civil war.”
Senior figures in Russia’s military shared some of Prigozhin’s disdain for Shoigu and Gerasimov, according to the person close to him and a senior Ukrainian official.
Most prominent among them were Sergey Surovikin, who favoured tactics that better factored in Russia’s battlefield limitations when commanding the invasion last autumn, and Mikhail Teplinsky, head of Russia’s paratroopers, who had also sustained huge casualties in Gerasimov’s assaults.
“Gerasimov’s tactics are to throw paratroopers at the most dangerous flashpoints and they really just get killed,” said Vadim Skibitskyi, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence.
Skibitskyi pointed to the fate of Russia’s elite 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, which Ukraine and Russian nationalist bloggers with ties to the military said suffered devastating losses during attacks on fortified positions in the Donbas over the winter.
“They don’t have any proper infantry in the brigade left,” Skibitskyi said, adding they were manning the frontline by mostly “taking personnel off ships”. “That’s why their losses have been so big,” he added. “This is the second string, in some cases even the third string.”
Wagner took an increasingly prominent role at the front lines, particularly after Putin appointed Surovikin commander of the invasion forces in October.
But when Putin put Gerasimov in sole charge of operations in January, the balance of power changed.
Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said Gerasimov brought the bureaucratic clout Surovikin lacked to “dominate the mercenaries” and their security service patrons.
The turnround was marked. On New Year’s Eve Putin honoured a convicted armed robber fighting for Wagner with a medal. Just seven weeks later, Prigozhin was complaining his men on the front lines were being starved of ammunition.
With Gerasimov ascendant, even his rivals are beginning to signal loyalty.
After disappearing for weeks, Teplinsky, the head of the Russian paratroopers and a Gerasimov critic, resurfaced on Wednesday in a video celebrating the main army holiday. He was filmed sitting in his office with a portrait of Gerasimov and a screensaver showing Shoigu.
Prigozhin, by contrast, has retained his taste for the theatrical. On Thursday, he released another video purportedly showing him armed with an automatic rifle in Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous hotspots in Ukraine’s Donbas region and where Wagner has lost thousands of men.
“Let’s go,” Prigozhin said, amid the sounds of artillery fire. “Otherwise these congratulations will be our last.”