Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch behind the infamous ‘Wagner Group’ Private Military Contractors (PMC), has been making waves with his social media posts about the lack of artillery ammunition and the alleged betrayal by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Prigozhin’s statements have led some to speculate that he is engaged in a public feud with his benefactor, President Vladimir Putin, who may be seeking to reduce Prigozhin’s sphere of influence and assert greater control over the Wagner group. But is this feud real or just a smokescreen for other motives?
In this report, we will examine the evidence and arguments for and against the existence of a feud between Putin and Prigozhin, drawing on insights from behavioural science, psychology, and Russia’s history of disinformation. We will also explore possible reasons why the feud may not be real, such as Prigozhin’s rumoured desire to move his troops out of Ukraine and back into Africa, or Putin’s need to juggle multiple agendas and interests.
Let us start with the line of reporting which suggests that Putin may be undermining the Wagner group and its leader, Prigozhin, by proposing to pay mercenaries less than regular soldiers for death in service. This move may signal Putin’s growing concern for the group’s autonomy and his desire to reduce its financial resources and influence, whilst also trying to entice the PMCs to leave Wagner and join the regular army as contract soldiers, rather than losing them altogether.
We must also consider the fact that the move may have unintended consequences, such as the PMCs feeling undervalued and under-compensated, becoming disillusioned with the Russian government, and engaging in activities that are detrimental to Russian interests.
The recent assassination of Maksim Fomin, a prominent pro-war Russian milblogger with deep connections to the Wagner Group, and the formation of the “Angry Patriots Club,” a group that is anti-Wagner and consists of several terrorists, extremists, and political activists, are further indicators of the fractures within the Kremlin and its inner circle. Fomin was a vocal critic of the Russian military command and the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), which could suggest that the feud between Putin and Prigozhin is more complex than previously thought. The attack was almost certainly deliberate and targeted, with unknown actors likely remotely detonating an explosive inside a statue presented to Fomin by a young woman during a public presentation.
Although Russian officials and propagandists have accused Ukraine of the assassination, it is a realistic possibility the attack was carried out by the FSB in an ongoing clash with Wagner Group. The timing of the assassination is also coincidental with the formation of the “Angry Patriots Club,” which opposes the policies of the Wagner group and includes former Soviet Air Force Colonel and Deputy of the State Duma, Viktor Alksnis, and Yevgeny Mikhailov, former assistant to the Chief of Staff of Putin’s administration. These events add to the complexity of the Putin/Prigozhin feud and its impact on Russian politics and international relations.
Another piece of evidence that has been cited to support the existence of a feud is Prigozhin’s social media posts about the lack of ammunition and the competition between his PMC and the regular Russian army in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Some analysts suggest that this infighting between Wagner and the army is indicative of Putin’s desire to maintain control over Prigozhin, who has been attempting to rise to power and challenge Putin’s authority.
However, it could be argued that the feud may be a ruse to justify the withdrawal of Wagner troops from Ukraine and back into Africa, where Prigozhin has made millions by plundering countries like Libya and Sudan. Careful attention to Prigozhin’s use of language could also indicate that his attacks on the “Kremlin” rather than Putin himself could be a deliberate strategy to avoid direct confrontation with the Russian leader.
So, which interpretation is more likely to be true? To answer this question, we need to consider the psychological and behavioural factors that may be at play. For example, research has shown that people tend to overestimate the frequency and intensity of conflicts between others, especially when they are emotionally invested in one side or the other. This bias, known as the “hostile media effect,” could be skewing our perception of the Putin/Prigozhin feud and making it appear more significant than it really is.
Another factor to consider is Russia’s long history of disinformation and propaganda, which has been used to sow confusion, distrust, and fear among its adversaries and even its own citizens. Putin, a former KGB officer, is a master of this craft and has been known to use it to great effect in his geopolitical manoeuvres. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the feud is a deliberate fabrication or exaggeration, intended to distract or mislead foreign governments, media, or public opinion.
In conclusion, the Putin/Prigozhin feud is a complex and multifaceted issue that defies easy answers or explanations. While there is some evidence to suggest that there may be tensions between the two men, we must also consider alternative interpretations and the influence of psychological biases and Russia’s history of disinformation.
Ultimately, it is impossible to say for certain whether the feud is real or just a smokescreen for other motives, but a nuanced understanding of the evidence and the factors at play can help shed light on this important issue. Regardless of the truth behind the feud, its impact on Russian politics and international relations is likely to be significant and deserves continued attention and analysis.