The Rise of Prigozhin and the ‘Donbasization’ of Russia
May 15, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
Nikolai Petrov writes that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, is increasingly visible in the public space, reflecting the migration to Russia of the gangster norms and practices that have developed in the Eastern Donbas since 2014.
Yevgeny Prigozhin keeps company with VIPs and gets away - at least for now - with cursing people very close to Putin. Source: VK
Escalation of the conflict

On May 5, Prigozhin put out a video in which he demanded that the Ministry of Defense provide him with ammunition to continue fighting in Bakhmut, threatening otherwise to withdraw Wagner mercenaries from their positions within a week. A day later, he said that the Ministry of Defense had promised him ammunition, and Wagner remained in Bakhmut.

The culmination came on May 9, when Prigozhin, right after the military parade on Red Square, published a half-hour video in which he said that he had been deceived, and contrary to the orders of the supreme commander-in-chief, his units had received only 10% of the required shells. Again, he began to blackmail the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. “Victory Day is the victory of our grandfathers, and we do not deserve that victory for a second… How are we celebrating it is a big question. Just remember them and that’s it, and don’t f@ck around on Red Square,” adding: “we will not leave Artemovsk, we will persist a few more days, we will fight...”

In parallel with the conflict between Prigozhin, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, which was headed into a tailspin, it suddenly emerged that Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who had been sacked on April 27 as deputy minister of defense for logistics, was named deputy commander of Wagner. It is believed that it was Mizintsev who directed the three-month siege of Mariupol, receiving the nickname “the butcher of Mariupol” in the Western press.

On May 10, Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov unexpectedly gave a lengthy interview to the little-known TV channel ATV (from Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Responding to a question about the situation in Artemivsk/Bakhmut and the Wagner statement, he said: “I will not name names, but I will say: no matter what is said, no matter what statements are made, all the same, we are talking about, let’s call it, the Russian armed forces. These are all Russian forces, unified forces. And they pursue one single goal.” Peskov also said that he was proud of his son, who had paid his debt to the motherland, without specifying that the only source of the dubious information about his son’s time at the front is Prigozhin.

The logic of events

There are many oddities in this whole web of events. Let’s start with the two big ones. Why did Prigozhin’s conflict with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense reach its public climax precisely on May 9? Why did Putin, as the supreme commander-in-chief and supreme arbiter – having smoothed over conflicts between important persons throughout all the years of his rule –not stop the public showdown between the field commander and the owner of a private military company, and the high command? Why did his press secretary Peskov, whose son Prigozhin likely helped get out of fighting, go instead to explain things? There is hardly any doubt that Peskov gave an interview to ATV not on his own initiative, but on Putin’s orders.

A possible explanation could be that Putin needed a fresh, symbolic victory for Victory Day, and, as Meduza writes, citing its sources, Prigozhin made him a “personal promise” to finally take Bakhmut.

Perhaps this would have happened had the Ukrainian command not taken into account the symbolic significance of Bakhmut (in military-strategic terms, its taking by the Russian side would not accomplish any major objectives).

In an interview with the Associated Press on March 29, President Zelensky said that if Bakhmut fell, Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran.” He warned that “if he [Putin] will feel some blood – smell that we are weak – he will push, push, push.”
When, as May 9 approached, it became clear that it would not be possible to announce the final capture of Bakhmut, the script for Victory Day was urgently switched from military to geopolitical,
for which Putin had to urgently summon five Central Asian leaders and a sick Lukashenka to Moscow. Meanwhile, just before the celebrations, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the state news agency TASS that foreign leaders had not been invited to the Victory Parade this year.

In addition, Prigozhin had to explain himself to Putin, whose expectations he had dashed. Putin’s behavior in this situation brings to mind the events of spring 2015 after the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Back then, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov and the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov clashed publicly, as there were more than serious suspicions that persons from Kadyrov’s inner circle were involved. Political analysts expected that Putin would have to choose one or the other, but he kept both by pushing them to their corners. Likewise, now Prigozhin has gotten off the hook for failing to fulfill his promise to the president.

The “Donbasization” of Russia

Whereas the West tends to demonize and overestimate Prigozhin, Russian observers tend to underestimate him. The man who publicly curses people very close to Putin – such as St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and Shoigu – and also keeps company with Putin’s long-time press secretary Peskov – whose son he got out of the army – as well as party leader Sergei Mironov (invariably in the highest elite circles), Kadyrov, Rosgvardiya head Viktor Zolotov and high-ranking generals, does not at all look like a presumptuous lone wolf.

Prigozhin, sometimes called an evil clown, is a skilled populist with a powerful and diversified media infrastructure, including many Telegram channels, voenkory, a “troll factory” and the so-called Federal News Agency (FAN). His speech, sprinkled with obscenities, turns out smoother and more coherent relative to the extremely low expectations that one might have based on his appearance and criminal background.

According to Levada Center Director Denis Volkov, “at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year, Prigozhin began to appear in open surveys about trusted politicians. Somewhere at the bottom, so far not in the top 10 or even 20, but he began to show up. First of all, patriotic hawks began to recognize him, as well as people who support the attack, the fighting” (see our translation of Volkov’s interview here).

And the last thing: when analyzing the escapades of Prigozhin, who publicly and using obscene language fingers Gerasimov and Shoigu for defeats at the front, the emphasis is usually on the reasons for Prigozhin’s audacity, though the consequences are equally important. The rise of Prigozhin, along with the increasingly visible place he occupies in the public space, testifies to the “Donbasization” of Russia – the migration to Russia of the gangster norms and practices that have developed in the Eastern Donbas, torn away from Ukraine in 2014. Prigozhin’s Wagner is a symbol of how the state lost its monopoly on legitimate violence, which is a straight road to civil war.
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