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Land Art And The Reputation Management Of Mercenary Mafioso Yevgeny Prigozhin
From Bakhmut to the Wagner Line
Imitating the very best tradition of Potemkin’s fabled villages, Yevgeny Prigozhin has put precious wartime resources into this combat engineering fraud.
Effective “dragon’s teeth” are buried under the ground so that less than half the structure is exposed. Those concrete pyramids are worse than useless, easily pushed aside with a bulldozer, as they have simply been laid on the ground.
The “Wagner Line” is only a mile long and crosses the international border. No one has seen further construction activity to extend it the full 1,200-plus miles needed to defend Russia, and the parts of “Russia” recently annexed from Ukraine, from the Ukrainian Army.
Prigozhin is never going to stop a Ukrainian offensive here and no such attack is likely in the near future. Defending against that remote possibility is not really what this land art project is supposed to do, anyway.
Instead, the Wagner Line is a visual showcase of Prigozhin himself — a form of nonverbal communication with Russians, a totem of his resolve to carry on with Vladimir Putin’s Russianizing project in Ukraine, come what may.
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“Wagner's defenses are in the second and third echelons of defense,” Prigozhin explained on Sunday.
And they were made, as I have already said, so that the fighters behind the Wagner PMCs feel more confident, and also so that in the event of a breakthrough in the front in any direction, they can thoroughly slow down the advance of the enemy.
Get that? Private Conscriptovitch, swept off the street last week and sent to Bakhmut to die this week, is fighting “behind” the Wagner forces, in this rhetorical framing. It makes sense if you are in Russia and think it is the center of the world.
With the fall of Kherson City expected soon, actual defensive construction on the southern bank of the Dnipro has begun in earnest. Named for the new Russian general in charge of this sector, the “Surovikin Line” will see real fighting in the weeks ot come.
Sergey Surovikin is another Putin favorite. He is not a mobster like Prigozhin, however, or as politically ambitious, so he does not make quite the same efforts to curate his image, especially abroad.
Prigozhin has been quite distracted by what people say about him in the west before. It has even led to self-defeating behavior. As The Intercept recently reported, Prigozhin was so eager to push back against Elliot Higgins and Bellingcat in public that he undermined the work of his lawyers in the UK.
In the emails, Prigozhin’s attorneys paint their client as occasionally difficult and impatient, fixated with media coverage of himself and particularly preoccupied with “reputation management.” Prigozhin seemed especially concerned with media coverage that he believed formed the basis for the sanctions imposed against him.
It happened again yesterday. Prigozhin told on himself, and on events in Moscow, by way of denial.
One of the Telegram channels associated with Wagner asked Prigozhin about a Monday evening report from the Institute for the Study of War that he had recently confronted Vladimir Putin and members of his inner circle over mobilization failures.
Prigozhin denied the reporting with manful swagger and a joke about his recently deceased mother-in-law. He tried to cast the report as falsehoods from western intelligence agencies.
“Of course, I am flattered that I do not have a conflict with weaklings, but I have no conflict with the security forces,” he said. “It is very strange to me that American intelligence and the media know more about me than I do.”
“Apparently, they have a direct connection with my mother-in-law.”
(“ISW specifically does not receive information from Prigozhin’s deceased mother-in-law, as he (ironically) suggested,” the organization retorted.)
It is therefore worth going back to read the ISW report to which Prigozhin responded. As they observed from his own words, Prigozhin has embraced the “maximalist” program of annexation, putting him clearly on one side of an internal Kremlin debate about the war.
Consider his own words, with my added emphases:
I am not the leader of the “War” party, but I am a member of the “War to the bitter end” party. I participated in my life in eight wars and in six of them I was on the winning side. War is a collective effort. And not always the result of it depends on the skill of the commander. Any war is a joint work of the military, politicians, industrialists and the people. The war must be carefully prepared, verified and determined by its goals, tasks and resources. In any case, where I won, it was always like that. Therefore, I am a representative of the party "War to the bitter end, as a collective work with clearly defined tasks, resources and goals.”
Six out of eight, one result pending is an excellent amateur soccer team season and it will resonate that way with the sort of Russians who have not fled the country. Prigozhin is a “winner” in this framing.
To reinforce this image, he likes to be seen with other winners.
During recent weeks, Prigozhin has alternately supported Ramzan Kadyrov and then distanced himself from the Chechen leader while embracing Igor Gurkin, the Russian nationalist war criminal, in raising a Wagner volunteer battalion.
Prigozhin is picking and choosing his dance partners. These realignments are a hint as to what is happening within the Kremlin war party and his own statements are a primary source from which ISW derives their Kremlinology.
He protests too much when the Washington Post quotes him, and perhaps that is the point.
All of this touches on the central question of Prigozhin’s self-curation in wartime. He “holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space that allows him to expand his constituency in Russia more readily than the disgraced Russian higher military command,” ISW writes.
Because Prigozhin has no formal rank or place in the Ministry of Defense, he “can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.”
Then, when asked about his criticism by friendly Telegram channels, Prigozhin denies the report in the most backhanded way possible (“I do not have a conflict with weaklings”) and deflects with a conspiracy theory.
Telegrammers have every reason to respect and defer to him. In turn, they “allow him to reach and interact with audiences inaccessible to the Russian MoD, which is restricted in its public statements and means of communication,” ISW notes.
Yet at the same time, “Prigozhin also benefits from holding no formal position of responsibility.”
He is not in command of any axis in Ukraine nor in charge of any major bureaucratic effort. He can critique those who are in positions of authority freely without fear that anyone can point to something he was specifically responsible for that he failed to achieve.
Here is the genius of Prigozhin’s strategy at Bakhmut. Come what may, it is a great plan for wasting Russian lives as “cannon meat” to inflate the political presence of Yevgeny Prigozhin within Russia.
Wagner employees encourage the barely-armed, untrained mobiks “behind” them to move forward into death ground by threatening to shoot them if they don’t.
“In the event of a breakthrough in the front in any direction, they can thoroughly slow down the advance of the enemy,” as Prigozhin says.
It’s a win-win scenario for the Wagner chief. We saw it working this week when, after weeks of intense bombardment and slow progress (100 or 200 meters a day, which Prigozhin hilariously calls a “normal” rate of progress for “modern” wars), Wagner-backed Russian infantry took possession of a concrete plant and the garbage dump on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
Hailed as a great victory for Russia, it lasted about 48 hours. Ukrainians killed hundreds or thousands of Russians and pushed them back more than a mile. Yet this episode will not accrue to Prigozhin as a loss.
On the contrary, his Wagner men love him, while the dead and captured Russians are not around to despise him.
Defeat does not deflate him at all because he has no direct stake in the result. In fact, he gains further influence the worse off the Ministry of Defense becomes.
Responsibility for defeat, even eventual total defeat, has been outsourced to the same government ministry that diminishes in power to his benefit as a power in Russia as well as a continuation of Putinism. See how that works?
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