The Kremlin is trying to rein in the Russian mercenary boss Prigozhin
By Andreas Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) – Its private army is pushing hard to give Russia a battlefield victory in Ukraine, but mounting evidence suggests the Kremlin has sought to limit what it sees as excessive political clout of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder the Russian Wagner mercenary group.
Prigozhin, a 61-year-old ex-convict, has made headlines in recent months for his gory role in Ukraine and is sometimes portrayed in the West as a real-life James Bond villain.
With a shaved head and a penchant for harsh language, he has also garnered attention in the Russian-language media, where he rejoiced at being sanctioned by the West, publicly insulted Russia’s senior military officials, and attempted to play battlefield success in the Kremlin’s favour , and his own detailed recruitment of tens of thousands of convicts for his private army.
His profile became so prominent that allies and analysts began speculating that he was looking for an official job or a career in politics.
However, there is growing evidence that the Kremlin has tried to nip such speculation in the bud by ordering Prigozhin to halt his public criticism of the Defense Ministry, while advising state media to stop naming him or Wagner.
Prigozhin confirmed last week that he was also stripped of the right to recruit convicts from prisons – a key pillar of his burgeoning political influence and one that has helped his forces make small but steady gains in eastern Ukraine, where they are closer to conquest the city of Bachmut seems to be coming.
Olga Romanova, director of a prisoner rights group, said the Defense Ministry took over convict recruitment earlier this year. The ministry has not confirmed this.
“The position of the (Kremlin) political bloc is not to let him into politics. They are a little scared of him and find him an uncomfortable person,” Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser close to the authorities, told Reuters.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a veteran Kremlin scholar, wrote in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that while Prigozhin’s downfall did not appear imminent, his ties to the presidential administration were beginning to crumble.
“Domestic overseers dislike his political demagogy, his attacks on official institutions, or his attempts to troll Putin’s staff by threatening to found a political party, which would give everyone in the Kremlin a headache,” she wrote.
“Not only has he become a public figure, he is visibly transforming into a full-fledged politician with his own views.”
According to Markov, the Kremlin received a promise from Prigozhin that he would not create his own political movement or join a parliamentary party unless the Kremlin asked him to do so.
“(The message) is that we will give you military resources, but don’t get involved in politics for now,” Markov said.
Prigozhin told a Russian interviewer on Friday that he had “zero” political ambitions.
Markov, who described Prigozhin as extremely confrontational, said he believes Putin urged Prigozhin at a meeting in St. Petersburg around January 14 to stop publicly criticizing the top figures.
Markov said he didn’t know exactly who said what at the meeting and Reuters could not confirm the accuracy of his claim.
Prigozhin has since softened his criticism, making it clear on Friday in a rare interview in which he faced the camera that he doesn’t criticize anyone.
The St. Petersburg meeting, which did not appear on the Kremlin website, was confirmed by at least one other participant who posted about it on social media. The Kremlin says it does not comment on private meetings.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether and why it reined in Prigozhin, but on Saturday Gray Zone, an influential social media channel linked to Wagner, released what appeared to be a leaked guidance document for state media looked Kremlin.
It advised recipients to stop mentioning Prigozhin or Wagner, instead proposing generic terms to describe his powers.
Reuters could not verify the document and state media are not allowed to share such guides.
‘HIS STAR HAS DARKNESSED’
Prigozhin said in a comment on Monday it appears Wagner has received less attention in the Russian media lately, blaming unnamed “losers” for trying to harm his group.
Markov, who has written widely and mostly positively about Prigozhin, said he was among those urged not to promote the mercenary leader.
“They stressed that we don’t ban you, but it’s better not to,” he said.
Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born chairman of the US think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, said he felt Prigozhin’s room for maneuver was shrinking.
“Prigozhin’s star has gone out. He had overdone his criticism of the military and other elites,” Alperovitch wrote on Twitter. “Now his wings will be cut off.”
After years of denial, Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows in September to admit he founded Wagner in 2014.
By then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow is calling a special military operation, had gone horribly wrong for top leaders, with a chaotic retreat from Kiev followed by defeat in the northeastern Kharkiv region and an impending forced withdrawal from Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson .
The wealthy catering tycoon quickly found himself at the center of a frantic public relations campaign, promoting his private army via social media, state television and feature films as an elite force capable of military alchemy.
He described himself as a ruthlessly efficient patriotic operator and Russia’s frontrunner as incompetent and out of touch.
Prigozhin, whose mercenaries are active in Africa and the Middle East, hinted last week that he and his men may one day disappear as quickly as they appeared, something his many enemies may doubt.
“When we’re no longer needed, we’ll pack up and go back to Africa,” he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alex Richardson)