'Putin's Chef' And The Meat-Grinder Of Bakhmut
The making of a myth?
Vladimir Putin is a dangerous man. However, Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov has called Yevgeny Prigozhin “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage.”
A lifelong gangster, Prigozhin got his start in prison, then made a killing in the St. Petersburg restaurant catering business, becoming “Putin’s chef.” In 2014, he financed a paramilitary corporation that exists to carry out Russian policy objectives. Because plausible deniability was built into the project, Prigozhin then spent eight years denying ownership of Wagner Group, even suing western reporters who wrote about his stake in the company, but his tune has quite suddenly changed in the last month.
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First, video of Prigozhin’s madcap recruiting speech to Russian prison inmates emerged through Telegram channels associated with Wagner two weeks ago. Then last week, Prigozhin openly embraced his role in Wagner PMC through a press release from his Concord catering service.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself” in 2014, and “sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this,” he said, adding: “I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country.”
Those interests have been all over the map: South America, Africa, Syria. Wagner provided the “little green men” who seized control of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 until regular Russian forces arrived. Mercenaries are illegal in Russia, however the company has figured large in Putin’s foreign adventures.
Today, analysts are discussing a possible open conflict between power factions in Russia, with the Defense Minister on one side and Prigozhin on another, and Vladimir Putin in the middle. Meanwhille, the sector of front that Wagner controls near Bakhmut remains the only place where Russian offensive action continues. It has continued throughout the Kherson and Kharkiv offensives, inching forward at tremendous cost in lives and material, never once pausing, for months, consuming combat power that could be used to stabilize the deteriorating situation elsewhere.
Military observers have scratched their heads about this seeming futility, but the violent ambitions of Yevgeny Prigozhin are an elegant explanation.
Kremlinology is not my domain. Narratively, however, Prigozhin strikes me as a Wallenstein figure — a powerful military entrepreneur who serves a declining sovereign.
Some of Prigozhin’s recent behavior has served to inflate his own public presence. For example, Prighozhin praised Ramzan Kadyrov this weekend, addressing him warlord to warlord, peer to peer. "Ramzan — you rock man!" he said, invoking their shared enmity towards the Russian Ministry of Defense.
"All these bastards should be sent barefoot to the front with automatic guns."
When asked if his words should be considered criticism of the defence ministry, Prigozhin doused his reply with irony: "God forbid".
"These statements are not criticism, but merely a manifestation of love and support," said Prigozhin, who the United States says runs a mercenary army that has dabbled in conflicts in Africa and in Syria.
"I, and Ramzan Akhmatovich even more so, are the most cultured of people," Prigozhin said, using Kadyrov's patronymic as a sign of respect.
Putin also promoted Kadyrov within the Russian military hierarchy. Together, the Chechen and Wagner leaders form one of “three main factions in the current Russian nationalist information space” identified by the Institute for the Study of War.
These are “Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki—people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own” jockeying for power in Russia. “Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions” to stay in power, but that is becoming much harder to do with the increasing frequency of Ukrainian battlefield victories.
Putin favorite Aleksandr Lapin, commander of the Central Military District, has taken special heat for the setbacks in Kharkiv. “Putin now finds himself in a dilemma” as Lapin comes under attack from the other factions:
He cannot risk alienating the Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, as he desperately needs Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. Nor can he disenfranchise the MoD establishment, which provides the overwhelming majority of Russian military power in Ukraine and the institutional underpinnings needed to carry out the mobilization order and continue the war.
Putin likely sees Prigozhin as both a potential enemy and a necessary ally. Such a quantum state is normal in Putin’s mafia regime. Any move to reign in Prigozhin will have to come obliquely, indirectly, as happened yesterday when a blogger on Prigozhin’s payroll was arrested for criticizing the Ministry of Defense.
Although this is just a proxy fight, a separation of interests is visible and growing. Kadyrov and Prigozhin are warlords; they would like more control over the military-industrial-bureucratic complex in Russia. To that end, it appears that some of the viral Telegram videos of newly-mobilized conscripts complaining about neglect, hunger, and poor conditions are actually Wagner setting up the MoD to take the blame for battlefield defeats that are already in progress.
Of course, the failures of Russian mobilization are very real — draftees are being thrown into ridiculous circumstances with little training or equipment — but the point here is that Prigozhin, and Wagner, want Russians to blame those failures on Putin’s generals, and Putin is defending those generals from proxy attacks in media by Prigozhin’s men. This dynamic is unsustainable.
Ukrainians have now pushed Russian forces out of large parts of all four Oblasts that Putin annexed by decree, yet the Bakhmut offensive continues today. Another series of Wagner-directed assaults was repulsed; pro-Russian outlets are doubling-down on Bakhmut as a significant potential victory.
This makes no sense as operational strategy. At their current rate of advance, Ukrainian troops will cut the railroads through the Donbass and make victory there impossible long before any Russian gets to Bakhmut. If Ukraine evacuated everyone from the center of Bakhmut tomorrow, Russian possession of the city would hardly put a stop to Ukrainian resistance elsewhere, nor could they keep it if their logistical routes became untenable.
The fall of Putin — or his death by natural or unnatural causes — is an imminent probability that grows proportionally to Russian defeat in Ukraine. Prigozhin must understand this. Kadyrov clearly understands that defeat is possible, too. So do the siloviki, despite all their warmongering talk.
So now let us imagine how the Bakhmut offensive will seem to Russians, particularly elite Russians, when they are looking backwards from a future point in time where Putin is no longer in charge, or else greatly diminished.
Suppose that, in the throes of military defeat and a humiliating peace with Ukraine, Prigozhin either takes power directly, or becomes the kingmaker, putting his own man in the Kremlin as a puppet. Both models have worked before in Russia.
Either way, the endless meat-grinder of Bakhmut will become a very useful myth. When everyone else with a chest full of medals was running away, Prigozhin pushed ahead at Bakhmut like a Spartan.
When the HIMARS began to rain down, Wagner Group’s sector was the only one where a command adapted intelligently and took better care of their ammunition stockpiles rather than continue leaving them in the open to get destroyed.
No one else in Russia kept the advance going for as long as Prigozhin did at Bakhmut. This is the leadership necessary for future victory, surely.
Prigozhin has consumed tens of thousands of Russian lives in frontal assaults straight out of World War I, but that is not going to be held as a strike against him.
On the contrary, his fanatical willingness to throw men into the fire will be praised for daring and courage.
Perhaps his troops will eventually reach Bakhmut, but it is not necessary to his legend that they actually do. It only matters that, when the war is over, he kept the offensive going until it could no longer physically continue.
While the rest of the Russian Army was coming apart, Prigozhin kept it together at Bakhmut, and kept fighting. That will be the story he tells, that Russia wants to tell themselves. Defeat, as always, will belong to someone else: Sergey Shoigu, Valery Gerasimov, and even Vladimir Putin are all expendable.
Their very real debacles during the invasion and mobilization will serve as good excuses for defeat later, and leave the new power faction with a clean slate.
For Yevgeny Prigozhin, the agenda will be greater decentralization of the Russian military, with more of its functions outsourced to the oligarch class or directly controlled by allies like Ramzan Kadyrov.
It is impossible to say how this will all shake out. Putin is unlikely to leave the Kremlin quietly or easily or gently. As the situation is very dynamic, this could all come to a head next week, or next year, in very unexpected ways, so we cannot predict what the structures of power in Moscow will look like. Whatever the outcome, however, within Russia, the siege of Bakhmut has already become the iconic struggle of the war, and Prigozhin its living saint.
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