Yevgeny Prigozhin has become Putin’s preeminent rival

By | January 26, 2023

Mikhail Zygar writes:

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, it seems, has finally noticed that the war in Ukraine created a dangerous competitor to his power: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company, the Wagner group, whose troops fight alongside the Russian Army.

Depending on your point of view, Mr. Prigozhin could be considered either the person of the year or the villain of the year. Mr. Putin is, according to many sources in Moscow, confident that he can weaken Mr. Prigozhin, who has clashed with the military’s general staff. However, the effect could be the opposite, with more people seeing Mr. Prigozhin as the most probable favorite to succeed Mr. Putin.

From the very beginning of the war against Ukraine, Mr. Putin made sure that rivals to his power could not emerge and took great pains to ensure that the conflict does not create a popular military leader who could pose a threat. It worked. In the summer of 2022, for instance, the ambitious Gen. Alexander Lapin was the recipient of a small online public relations campaign glorifying him. This immediately cost him his job — and a brief but powerful media war against him was launched by Mr. Prigozhin, who controls a series of online troll factories.

According to my sources close to the Russian administration, Mr. Putin then perceived Mr. Prigozhin solely as a counterweight to the generals. The Russian president saw Mr. Prigozhin as his man, an obedient tool and easy to use.

Yet in recent years, Mr. Prigozhin has made a very unexpected career. At first, he was known as Putin’s chef, who managed to become a state contractor of school lunches for Russian children all across the country. Then he created the troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, and he was singled out in Robert Mueller’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election. Finally, Mr. Prigozhin became famous as the founder of the Wagner group, whose contractors fought in Africa, Syria and now Ukraine.

Those achievements alone guaranteed Mr. Prigozhin responsibility for Mr. Putin’s most delicate assignments. But this year, Mr. Prigozhin moved into another league, surpassing all of Mr. Putin’s other friends in power. These include Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; the Russian Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev; the C.E.O. of Russia’s state-owned defense giant, Rostec, Sergei Chemezov; and Mr. Putin’s closest friend, Yury Kovalchuk. Mr. Prigozhin bypassed all of them and appears to be the most important player in Russia. He is both the most popular political operator and the one who is feared by Russian high officials and businessmen. [Continue reading…]

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