Analysis: Wagner chief is Putin’s jester, indispensable for shady business
As the Russians declare victory in Bakhmut after months of bloody fighting, one figure has been increasingly visible, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. He claimed to have fully captured the city, a success subsequently lauded by President Vladimir Putin. The exchange is part of a larger, multi-faceted chess game unfolding in the intricate halls of Russian politics.
Prigozhin's proclaimed win in Bakhmut is critical for him at this juncture because it allows him to demonstrate usefulness to Putin. “It is important for him to showcase his effectiveness now, as the recent events indicate a noticeable decrease in his influence,” Ivan Fomin, Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) told Al Arabiya English.
His waning influence is evident in the termination of his access to Russian prisons for recruitment purposes, the curtailing of his communication with Russian ministries and agencies, and the rising difficulties with the ministry of defense, limiting his men’s supply of ammunition.
Paradoxically, Prigozhin's apparent loss of influence within official channels has led him to increase his visibility in the public sphere. “However, the use of public channels is more a display of weakness than strength. This growing visibility actually signifies a decline in his influence. His reliance on public channels indicates that non-public ones are now inaccessible to him,” Fomin said.
The Wager chief has been using social media to air his public rants attacking Moscow’s top brass, bureaucrats and the Russian elite, which made him a popular public figure in large parts of Russian society, as well as catapulted him into the international limelight.
Yet, despite his public tirades, Prigozhin remains significant in Putin’s power structure due to his role as a counterbalance to the defense ministry. The Russian president still benefits from having a figure with military resources that can act with apparent autonomy, providing plausible deniability for the Kremlin when necessary. “This makes Prigozhin indispensable for all sorts of shady business,” Fomin argued.
“Progozhin’s visibility, assertiveness, and aggressive stance towards some parts of the Russian elite may give the impression that Prigozhin is some kind of threat to Putin, but I do not think he actually is. His extraordinary role is a feature not a bug of Putin’s system. He is a special element of the system – a person who is allowed to say and do things that others cannot, something like a jester,” he said.
The Wagner boss said that he will pull his men out of the battlefield by the end of the month for rest and retraining. But there were no declarations of whether the group will continue to take part in the Ukraine war.
Ruslan Trad, resident fellow for security research at the Atlantic Council, told Al Arabiya English that the future of Wagner's redeployment remains uncertain. They could potentially continue their activities in Ukraine or return to Africa to support their ally, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan.
Last month, Wagner denied operating in Sudan and claimed it was not involved in the recent outbreak of violence between the Sudanese army and the RSF. However, it is widely reported that Wagner has operations in the Middle East and Africa, such as Syria, Central African Republic, Libya and Sudan where they have reportedly provided services ranging from personal security for leaders, to military training, to active combat roles.
Trad contended that Wagner’s operations overseas are not dependent on their participation or lack there of in the Ukraine war.
“Their forces are in the areas where Russia has an interest, at least because the supply lines of valuable resources, which the Kremlin uses to circumvent sanctions, are at stake. Sudanese gold is one of those resources, and Hemedti has personal and economic ties to Wagner. So far, there is no evidence that the Russians are active on the ground - yet - in favor of one force or another, but diplomatically, they have taken a position against the Sudanese army,” Trad said.
As for the group chief’s standing with Putin after the Bakhmut events, despite the ebbing of his influence, Prigozhin's jester-like role seems secure within Putin's carefully calibrated political machinery.
Trad eloquently summed it up: “In the end, Prigozhin brings to Putin what he wants - profits, fear, and symbolic victories to be used in propaganda.”
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