Putin’s power struggle: Russian president launches campaign to discredit Wagner leader Prigozhin

In a high-stakes power struggle, President Vladimir Putin has launched a campaign to discredit Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the private military contractor group known as Wagner. Putin, while admitting that the Kremlin financed Wagner’s operations, sought to portray Prigozhin as corrupt, questioning the possibility of embezzlement. This move comes after Prigozhin’s failed rebellion against Putin’s regime, where his troops came dangerously close to Moscow before being halted by a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin aims to undermine Prigozhin’s credibility and popular support, fearing the impact of a “noble robber” myth on his government’s future.

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Putin Steps Up Effort to Undercut Wagner Leader After Revolt

By Bloomberg News

President Vladimir Putin sought to cast the Wagner leader who rose against him as corrupt, even as he said the Kremlin was financing the mercenary’s operations.

As Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus in his private jet from St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Putin was detailing more than $3 billion he said Russia had paid from the state budget in the past year for Wagner’s troops and for food supplied by Prigozhin’s Concord catering company for the Russian army fighting in Ukraine.

“I hope that no one stole anything, or, let’s say, stole just a little, in the course of this work,” Putin told a group of soldiers at the Kremlin. “We will of course look into all this.”

The portrait of Prigozhin as a grasping traitor was an effort to undercut the Wagner leader’s claims to popular sympathy as his troops raced through southern Russia to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow before aborting the rebellion after a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Under the agreement, Putin pledged not to prosecute Wagner for armed mutiny and investigators closed a criminal case Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean prosecutors can’t open embezzlement and corruption cases, according to Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Ordinary Russian citizens, for the most part, love defenders of the motherland, and don’t like sly businessmen,” he said on Telegram.

The implication was that Prigozhin had revolted ahead of a July 1 deadline for Wagner fighters to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, effectively ending its independence and the flow of state cash to his mercenary group. 

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It’s important for the Kremlin and many elite groups “to expose Prigozhin’s motives, to show that he did business in the war,” said Alexei Chesnakov, a former senior Kremlin official and political consultant. “If this myth about the ‘noble robber’ is not debunked, it will affect the government and its future.”

Prigozhin has accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of trying to “destroy” Wagner and flatly rejected the demand to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. Putin backed the measure days before the rebellion.

In an audio message on Telegram justifying his mutiny, Prigozhin said his fighters had enjoyed widespread public support along the route of their march toward Moscow. Their easy progress through Russia’s heartland only proved his point that the Defense Ministry wasn’t protecting the country because there were “serious problems with security,” he said. 

Crowds cheering Prigozhin and Wagner troops in videos on social media as they pulled out of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don following the end of the mutiny strengthened his argument. 

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In the weeks prior to his revolt, Prigozhin also toured Russian cities holding public meetings to argue that the military risked defeat in Ukraine unless the war was intensified with a move to mass mobilization and martial law. 

He appears at ease talking with ordinary Russians, visiting grieving relatives of Wagner troops killed in Ukraine to take tea in their homes and present service medals or to console them at funeral services. 

He displays a popular touch in abundant messages on social media, with humor that strikes a chord among ordinary Russians.

Putin, by contrast, has surrounded himself with security officials and army officers since the mutiny, appearing shaken by the greatest threat to his almost 24-year rule.

Many of his top officials have been taken aback by the crisis. At a televised meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin Tuesday, ministers appeared shocked and solemn.

Putin is attempting to portray Prigozhin “as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said in a report Tuesday. “Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time.”

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(Updates with analyst comment in seventh paragraph)

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