The enduring popularity of Wagner’s boss Prigozhin presents a challenge to Putin

Russians, mourning the supposed death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, have erected makeshift memorials in nearly two dozen cities across Russia and occupied Ukraine in recent days, in a sign of the leader’s enduring popularity and potential challenge to President Vladimir Putin amid divisions within the elite and at home. military in the course of the war.

Prigozhin and other senior Wagner commanders were presumed dead after his Embraer commercial plane crashed Wednesday night northwest of Moscow, just two months after Putin called him a traitor for leading a short-lived insurrection against the Russian military in June.

Nevertheless, the memorials – while not representing a national outpouring of shock and grief – showed Prigozhin’s support across Russia in hardline pro-war circles, and highlighted the Kremlin’s delicate task of managing potential anger among his supporters, while convincing many in Russia’s elite of Prigozhin’s death. assumed. It was an assassination ordered by the Kremlin.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has strongly dismissed speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement as “sheer lies”.

The Russian elite draws one lesson from the plane that shot it down: Cross Putin and die

Russian analyst and freelance journalist Dmitry Kolesev, who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, said the challenge for the Kremlin is to manage the anger of Prigozhin and Wagner’s supporters, including junior and middle army officers.

“Prigozhin, despite declaring allegiance to Putin, endangered his regime and showed his weakness, for which he received the inevitable punishment. I think the elites understood this signal very well.”

“At the same time, there is a broader audience of military activists, supporters of PMC Wagner and Wagner veterans, among whom is the cult of Prigozhin,” Kolzev said. “Putin needs to prevent these people from becoming his opponents and turning them away from potentially extremist actions, by honoring Prigozhin and presenting an alternative version of his death.”

That is why Putin praised Prigozhin on Thursday as a “talented person” who “achieved the necessary results” but “made mistakes,” referring to the rebellion, he said.

The memorials glorifying the Wagner leader came despite a concerted Kremlin propaganda campaign in the aftermath of the rebellion to discredit Prigozhin as a greedy criminal and a traitor to Russia, an effort that served to dampen Prigozhin’s unbridled popularity, which had reached 58 percent in the week before the rebellion. According to independent polls Levada Center.

Before Prigozhin’s plane crash, Russia was preparing for life after Wagner

People put flowers and photographs inscribed with “Hero of Russia”, Wagner flags and badges, candles, religious images, and even a violin, the symbol of the mercenary group that called itself the “Orchestra”, and its members are “musicians”. Many wore Wagner camouflage with their faces covered, or black T-shirts with a smiling Wagner skull emblem.

Prigozhin inspired loyalty in his men because they saw him on their side against intransigent military bureaucrats, despite Wagner’s extremely high casualty rates, especially among ex-convict combatants, and widespread claims that those who deserted were often executed.

One of the Wagner fighters from St. Petersburg, Pavel Chabrin, wrote a poem about Prigozhin: “He was with us at the front: in the trenches, in dugouts. He knew our troubles and rejoiced with us. He slept in tents, ate porridge with a knife, and put candles for the dead in front of icons.”

Prigozhin refused to smile, he wrote, flattering the room, and “with every word, he cut through the air like a whip.”

During the war, Prigozhin increased his popularity with salty, direct, and brutal videos recorded near the front lines—some apparently in Bakhmut—where explosions occurred nearby, while visiting his men in underground bunkers in the war zone. As Russia’s war effort faltered, he appeared to many as honest and trustworthy, and one of the few prominent figures willing to defy Russian laws against discrediting the military by exposing military failures and heavy casualties.

On two separate days, he showed dozens of fresh corpses of Wagner’s men killed in the Battle of Bakhmut, posted videos where he shouted obscenities at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of treachery and demanding more ammunition.

Families of Wagner soldiers have expressed their grief and loyalty in group chats on the Telegram app in recent days and worried about whether they would get the payments and benefits due to them. Prigozhin had long been under US sanctions, and the Treasury Department blacklisted his logistical and administrative chief, Valery Chekalov, in July. He was also on the plane.

“To be a warrior is to live forever!” Written by the sister of a deceased Wagner fighter. “For me personally, he is a man with a capital letter, who won the battle first against himself, who created the Wagner PMC, undoubtedly the most combat-ready army in the world, who has become a real family for many men! A true patriot of Russia, who loves and hates the motherland The countless hordes of bureaucracy, who unfortunately never managed to break through!, wished him a “bright and eternal memory”.

Prigozhin’s apparent death enhances Putin’s power, and puts the Wagner Group under suspicion

Another woman expressed her fears of uncertainty about future Wagner fighters remaining without Prigozhin’s protection and possibly being forced to join mercenary groups controlled by the Ministry of Defense or to register as volunteer soldiers.

“Without leadership qualities, without connections, without the authority of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who will protect the guys from signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense?” I wrote. Who will guarantee their return home?

In Moscow, people left greetings at St. Maxim the Blessed Church on Varvarka Street, and in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s hometown, they left greetings at his business center and at an associated café.

State Duma deputy Vasily Vlasov of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party has proposed renaming Zolnaya Street in Saint Petersburg, where his office is located, in Prigozhin’s honor.

Prigozhin, 62, met Putin, a former KGB officer who worked in the mayor’s office, in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, shortly after Prigozhin’s 1990 release from prison where he had served nine years of a 13-year sentence on charges of Theft and fraud. And theft, according to Russian media.

Prominent Russian figures joined in public eulogies, drawing on Putin’s praise. The nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin called him “the best of men”. Tula governor Alexei Dyumin, a former chief of Putin’s security who knew Prigozhin well, described him as “a true patriot, a resolute and courageous man” and not a traitor.

Sergei Mironov, head of the Just Russia for Truth political party, said Prigozhin had upset many people, but warned that “Russia’s enemies will pay heavily for the death of the heroes.”

According to analysts, many in the Russian elite are convinced that Prigozhin’s death was an assassination ordered by Putin. The Paris-based Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said public comments by prominent figures followed in Putin’s footsteps, but also indicated their unease over the incident.

All this, of course, is very subjective. But the feelings of people like Dumin can now be understood: they believe that characters like Prigozhin, despite their faults, do not deserve such a death.

Analyst Kolzev said Dumin’s comments indicated divisions within the elites over Prigozhin’s “sanction”. He said Dumin, who appears to be setting himself up as defense minister in the future, needs to ensure the loyalty of junior and middle officers, “and they are likely to view Prigozhin’s killing negatively.”

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson He expressed His conviction that Putin ordered Prigozhin’s assassination, in a Daily Mail column, is the most candid statement about the incident from any Western politician to date.

“As we watch the horrifying footage of that plane heading towards the ground, we are witnessing something historic. Such is the violent annihilation – on television – of his enemies by a sitting head of state. I cannot think of a Another example of such ostentatious, unrestrained brutality by a world leader — not in our lifetime.” He said the world “wants to know” that Putin was responsible.

Western analysts believe that the real cause of the plane crash may never be known, given the politicized investigation system in Russia. Russian state-owned and pro-Kremlin media focused on the official investigation into the crash, speculating that the plane was destroyed by Ukrainian saboteurs or foreign intelligence agents.

The pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Prigozhin’s plane was parked in the open and repaired shortly before the fatal flight. It stated that two potential buyers of Prigozhin’s plane were on the plane for an hour shortly before its departure.

Russia has made few gains in the war since Wagner’s invasion of Bakhmut in May, and recent drone strikes on the capital, Moscow, have brought war back to Muscovites. Early Saturday, Russian air defenses shot down a drone near the capital, according to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo and Domodedovo airports were closed for several hours overnight.

Russia’s far-right paramilitary group Rusic, which is also fighting in Ukraine, announced late Friday that it would withdraw its fighters from the Ukraine war, after its senior member, Jan Petrovsky, was arrested in Finland, where he may be extradited to Ukraine. On trial for participating in a terrorist group. Russian officials, Rusich claimed, did little to help Petrovsky.

“If the state cannot protect its citizens, why should the citizens protect the country?” The group posted on Telegram.

Marie Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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