As he claimed victory in the battle for Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner private military company (PMC), gave another of his firebrand interviews. He lambasted, in unequivocal terms, the Russian minister of defence and his chief of staff, Russia’s “deep state” – namely, the presidential administration and the “quasi-defence” establishment – and the elites who shield their sons from the battlefronts.
He revealed that he does not understand what the war in Ukraine is fought for, but “as long as there is a fight, we have to fight it well” – even though he added that the long war to come would take a huge toll. In this, Prigozhin spoke the bitter truth – which begs the question how he manages to get away with it, when others are being handed jail terms for far milder criticisms.
The answer is that he reflects the views of a significant segment of Russian society. These people are pro-war, but critical of the way it is fought, and gutted by the corruption and incompetence that have cost army lives. This anti-elite but “patriotic” sentiment is shared by those who, under certain circumstances, can act politically and, if necessary, forcefully, empowering Prigozhin with a sense of a popular resonance.
Prominent among these figures are the “heroes” of the so-called Russian Spring, the men who fought in the insurgency in Donbas from 2014. The common narrative in the west is that this insurgency was exclusively a Kremlin gambit. But my research with leaders, such as Igor Strelkov (real name Girkin) and field commanders suggested otherwise. Many of these commanders were motivated by personal convictions – antithetic to Putin’s regime, they dreamed of establishing an idealised Russian world in a new “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine, in contrast to the crony capitalism that characterises Putin’s Russia.
I was convinced that they were genuine in their beliefs and prepared to give their own and other people’s lives in the pursuit of a greater goal. I came to believe that if critical circumstances arise, this group will have a role to play – and it may be coming.
The Russian state, which initially was at a loss as to how to deal with these vehemently pro-Russia but unruly characters, realised that they could be dangerous. Since 2017, they started to be suppressed. Sputnik–i-Pogrom, the main online intellectual resource of rightwing Russian nationalism, was blocked, and its editor Yegor Prosvirnin died under suspicious circumstances in 2021. Those who survived, were kept in check and out of the media and politics, so they turned their energies to “milblogging”.
Men who love war
These are men who love war and everything that goes with it – the weapons, the tactics, historical battles, wargaming, uniforms, battle thrills. They exist in any society – but in Russia, the intervention in Ukraine created a chance for them to find political prominence.
These “internet warriors” rose from the obscure margins to the spotlight of politics. Their resources command large audiences on the popular app Telegram. Channels such as Rybar (1.13 million subscribers), WarGonzo (1.3 million) and personalities Igor Strelkov, the former “minister of defence” of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, who started the initial uprising in 2014 (790.000), have attracted more followers in Russia than their liberal counterparts. They post articles, videos and engage with their audiences, classing themselves as voenkory, or war correspondents. Viewers appreciate their candid assessment of the frontline realities, their sources with real knowledge, engaging journalism and interesting guests.
Collective emotions matter, and the “warriors” have created a sub-culture which has proved catchy. It has own legends, such as Vladlen Tatarsky (Maxim Fomin), who robbed banks, served time, escaped from jail when a tank shelled it, fought in the Donbas insurgency, published three memoir books and hosted a popular channel. He was recently assassinated in a targeted explosion. For Tatarsky and those like him, war was an adventure worth having – even if it was a short one.
The “Reverse Side of the Medal”, a YouTube channel with which Tatarsky was involved, markets martial clothing and insignia such as the Wagner group’s – a red skull with two mortar shells – which have become a stamp of recognition among followers.
Thus, two radically different military cultures clash: a rigid and top-heavy ministry of defence establishment which has resources of the state behind it, and the guerrilla tactics of volunteers and private military companies (PMCs) that rely on improvisation and initiative.
These two groups are wary of each other. The ministry of defence has been cagey about providing Wagner with large amounts of ammunition. Meanwhile Prigozhin lashes out at them for the military failure. Putin, meanwhile, looks on, appearing to enjoy the generals being challenged.
The state cannot afford to alienate this “warrior” constituency as it may have to rely on them both on the frontlines and to help maintain a pro-war momentum in society. But the Kremlin is also mindful of the risks involved – “warriors” like Prigozhin can be hard to control and may develop ambitions. Their camp is not uniform, and personal animosities and different views on the future of Russia exist. And yet, the contours of a political force that could influence post-Putin outcomes in Russia are beginning to emerge.
If an internal crisis – Putin suddenly dies, for example – opens a window of opportunity and the ruling elite lose control, this constituency will be the one most prepared to act. Thanks to the likes of Prigozhin, they will have organisational, financial and media resources at their disposal.
Prigozhin will become a kingmaker, even if not a king himself. Hence, we need to look beyond seeing the Kremlin’s hand everywhere and notice autonomous actors who can become movers and shakers of the new order.