One of Putin’s Inner Circle Has Criticized the Kremlin’s Ukraine Strategy — And He’s Not Alone
Last week, the leader of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, went on an unhinged public rant criticizing Russia’s war effort, shocking Kremlin watchers and revealing how the conflict is sowing division in Putin’s ranks. On May 5, Prigozhin unleashed a torrent of invective against Russian leadership targeting the current architects of Ukrainian campaign — underscoring that the war has reached an inflection point. It marked the first time in Putin’s presidency one of his inner circle has criticized his leadership.
Prigozhin, dubbed “Putin’s cook” for getting his start by serving food to Putin, had infamously made a blood-soaked sledgehammer the symbol for his private army. Progozhin was leading the campaign in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, throwing wave after wave of his men on to the front lines, many former prisoners conscripted into the military. His soldiers bragged about using a hammer to bash in the head of an accused defector. Putin’s army embraced Prigozhin’s violent symbolism and accepted sledgehammers from Wagner as souvenirs and a symbol of strength. But suddenly, Prigozhin was hammering the entire Russian military command in a bizarre, theatrical speech, standing over dead bodies in Ukraine, calling them “cowards,” “bitches,” and “fa***s” for “shameful” defeats. He promised to punish the two key men in Russia’s National Security Council — Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov — for his dead soldiers. Never in my years of covering Russia as a journalist have the inner workings of the Kremlin been aired in such a manic and public way.
Of course, we have seen thousands of Russian opposition supporters march on the streets of major cities chanting “Putin is a thief.” The slogan’s author, Aleksey Navalny, is in prison now, sentenced to nine years and facing a lifetime of punishment. Infighting in leadership has bubbled up for years. This is different. Putin’s own man, an insider with a face like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, led the revolt. He openly condemned Putin’s commanders despite previously being part of a propaganda cult supporting the army on Russian television, and all on the eve of Putin’s favorite national holiday, Victory Day, celebrating the military. And it cannot be brushed away just as the ravings of a madman who lost, as he said, more than 20,000 soldiers in the “meat grinder operation” in Bakhmut. His raw and theatrical display echoed throughout Russian politics. Both his haters and supporters called the performance over the bodies “revolutionary.”
First, Prigozhin says that Gerasimov and Shoigu are to blame for the dead, promising the two top commanders in the Russian military would “burn in hell and eat their guts,” and points at bloody corpses of his soldiers lying all over a field. “You, bastards, sit in expensive clubs, your children enjoy life and make YouTube videos, you think that you are the masters of this life, that you have a right to decide their lives,” he yelled in his message. “They came here as volunteers, so you would grow fat in your offices of red wood, keep that on mind.” In another video, standing with a crowd of his still-living soldiers behind his back, he declares to Putin, Gerasimov, and Shoigu that his guys would not die “useless” deaths and that on May 10 — the day after the Victory Day holiday — he would withdraw from the Ukraine front and “to lick wounds.”
He directly addressed Russian leadership, whom he said hoped to be remembered in history: “You have already made it into history as cowards.” And finally, Prigozhin recorded a third video in a dingy room, sitting on a worn couch. He revealed his calculus: Limited by the weapons and a lack of ammo, if he kept fighting, he was going to have mass casualties on his hands. “The tens of thousands of killed and wounded will burden the conscience of those who did not give us the ammunition: the Defense Minister Shoigu and the Chief of General Staff Gerasimov,” he said, his oversized mouth hanging open at the end of each sentence. This kind of criticism would land most protestors in Russia in prison, and many have been jailed for far less.
On the same day, his friend Zakhar Prilepin, a nationalist writer and passionate supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wrote in a post on Telegram, “I think all the time on such moments: that’s how revolutions happen.” Prigozhin reported Prilepin’s words and suggested a breakdown in the Russian leadership. On Saturday, a day after writing about this instability, Prilepin himself was badly wounded in a car bombing in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, which is also my hometown and had once seemed far from the war. His driver died in the assassination attempt. More than a year into this disastrous war, one thing is clear: Instability is brewing inside Russia.
What happened to Putin, after one of his chief allies hinted at wanting to kill his top generals? And after a bunch of drones attacked several regions of Russia, including the Kremlin? He disappeared, went quiet for days, which has been the classic Putin approach to crisis since early in his presidency, when he vanished for 14 days on “vacation” after the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in 2000. Putin emerged for a more subdued Victory Day parade on Tuesday and delivered a short speech filled with the usual nationalistic jingo and falsehoods, but there was a hollowness to the recycled grievances. “A true war has been unleashed against our motherland,” Putin said. “We have repelled international terrorism, and we will defend the residents of Donbas and secure our own safety. Russia has no unfriendly nations in the West or in the East.” There was no mention of the massive Russian loss of life or military failures in Ukraine.
For his part, Prigozhin’s tactics of public shaming has seemed to work: In spite of his “bitches” and cowards” remarks, Shoigu is said to have agreed to supply ammunition to Wagner over the weekend, leading to Prigozhin reversing course on withdrawing his forces. The Kremlin caving to demands is unfamiliar territory and some see it as a sign of weakness.
“Now Putin is facing a dead end, a revolutionary situation, ” a former Putin speechwriter, Abbas Gallyamov, tells me. “According to Lenin, a revolutionary situation is when the lower classes do not want to live in the old way, and the upper classes are unable to live in the old way. Putin’s absence blows his reputation in public. He cannot defend the main players, and it becomes obvious that he is actually weak.”
Gallyamov left Russia in 2018, when he felt the beginning of “fascist tendencies in Russia,” he says. “Instead of discussing the crises on the front in the war, Putin talks about the Victory Day parade, his only comfortable zone, how pathetic.”
Across the frontlines, Ukraine is watching the Kremlin mess with fascination.
“Everything Prigozhin said sounded true, both about the ammunition and about his losses,” says Tetiana Popova, a former deputy Minister of Information Policy. The war is not going well for Russia in Bakhmut. She has interviewed 12 captured Wagner soldiers, most of them former prisoners. “Prigozhin recruited over 40,000 prisoners, threw them into the meat grinder in Bakhmut, and up to 90 percent of them got killed,” she says. The city, green and pretty before the war, was home to about 70,000 Ukrainians. Over a year of fighting has left it a shelled-out ruin, with the majority of its civilians having either fled or been captured or killed.
The stories we hear from survivors, of families hiding with kids in the ruins, are heartbreaking. But Prigozhin does not mention civilian casualties. His blunt fury reminded me of an interview I had with general Gennady Troshev, who commanded Russian troops in the North Caucasus Military District during the second war in Chechnya. We spoke in his spacious office at the Presidential Administration in 2007. The general complained about his nerve-racking phone conversations with Putin during the fighting, when he had to report on the number of killed soldiers. Troshev hated that, he told me. He also hated to work at the Presidential Administration: “I would rather go back to the trenches than to work with these rats here.” He remained fixated on the troubles of bureaucrats in Moscow fighting among themselves.
Putin loves to humiliate his adversaries in the most brutal and gangster-like way. We have heard him promise to hang the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, by his testicles. We saw him bring a huge dog to the meeting with Angela Merkel, who was famously afraid of dogs. The world was often shocked by Putin mocking his critics in the past two decades. But in Russia, his manners, and assassinations of critics and journalists, were welcomed by lovers of strength and power. Prigozhin just happened to be Putin’s favorite executor, one he could rely on at all times with the most sinister operations, from running the notorious internet troll factory that interfered in U.S. elections to fighting in Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine. Neither Prigozhin, nor his Wagner Group, have ever been prosecuted for beating, beheading, and burning the body of a Syrian national in 2017. Nor Russia has investigated Wagner for the murders of three journalists in the Central African Republic in 2018. And now Prigozhin used all his political capital and weight to turn on Putin’s war machine in a moment of crisis.
What happens next is anybody’s guess. One Putin’s inner circle breaking ranks is something we have not seen before. Prigozhin’s insubordination presents a looming threat. The dangers and possibilities are endless but whatever happens next, the stakes could not be higher.