This text was produced in collaboration with Bellingcat and Der Spiegel
How it all began
Ten years ago, on the eve of the start of the war in Ukraine, it was the Ministry of Defense that helped Prigozhin gain serious influence. The companies of the then-unknown Putin's cook began to receive huge state contracts for serving food to the army. Moreover, this service was provided extremely badly (the military counterintelligence of the FSB even initiated a criminal case against Prigozhin's companies due to mass poisoning in the army). Nevertheless, this provided Prigozhin with sufficient funding for his own projects, such as an Internet troll factory, a network of junk media, and, of course, a private military company headed by the former GRU neo-Nazi Dmitry Utkin (he took the call sign "Wagner" out of love for the Third Reich). ). After his dismissal from the GRU, Utkin managed (without much success) to fight in Syria in 2013, and from the very beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, he participated in the occupation of Crimea and the seizure of the territory of Donbass already as the leader of a new PMC, which became known as Wagner PMC. Even then, the "musicians" (as the militants of this PMC are usually called) operated under the control of the GRU. They got the opportunity to train at Russian military bases, use military airfields, and in the conflict zone they acted under the direct control of GRU officers. So, for example, the intercepted calls show that in Ukraine Utkin (Wagner) received instructions from GRU officer Ivannikov.
PMC Wagner was not a personal project of Prigozhin, he did not determine military goals for it, but Putin's cook did not neglect the opportunity to earn money from a private army. For example, in Africa, PMC militants helped to gain control over deposits of precious stones and metals, on which Prigozhin's companies made money. According to Putin's idea, Prigozhin's PMC was supposed to operate under the general control of the Ministry of Defense, but at the same time not formally be part of the Russian troops in order to evade responsibility (including for numerous war crimes). However, from the outset, this strategy had two problems. First, the Americans considered the "musicians" a legitimate target, as shown by the incident in Deir ez-Zor, where the "Wagnerites" suffered huge losses. Secondly, the lack of proper military discipline led to problems in situations where the "musicians" had to act shoulder to shoulder with the regular army.
It is not known for certain what exactly led to the final break between the GRU and Prigozhin: whether it was more the desire of the General Staff to gain more complete control over the mercenaries, or whether the main thing was the desire to redirect profits from this already global business into their own pockets. One way or another, the GRU began to create its own PMC.
The initiative to create it was taken by the deputy head of the GRU, General Vladimir Alekseev (The Insider wrote about him in an investigation about the Silk Way Rally). At the head of the new PMC, called "Redut", he put his confidant, 54-year-old Anatoly Karaziya (according to one of the sources, he is a relative of Alekseev).
Many friends knew Karaziy as a biker (by the way, he introduced himself to them as “Vladimir”), it was less widely known that he was the head of intelligence in the Wagner PMC.
In August 2021, Karaziy zealously set to work, began looking for training camps in the Crimea, Volgograd and Tambov. Recruitment went both from among the "musicians" and from recruits who were trained on the basis of the 16th brigade of the GRU special forces near Tambov.
By January 2022, Karaziy lured many former “musicians” to Redoubt, and his total number was already several thousand people. Prigozhin was furious at what was happening and, realizing that Karaziya was pandering to the GRU, demanded an explanation. At the end of January 2022, he was invited to the office on Khoroshevskoye Highway. According to a source in the GRU, at first Prigozhin told Alekseev that if Karaziy did not stop recruiting “musicians” for Redut, Prigozhin would kill Karaziy. In response to this, Alekseev allegedly invited Prigozhin to go to another office, where Karaziy was already waiting for him, who offered to sort it out on the spot. According to the source, Prigozhin was taken aback and began to say that he was misunderstood. Prigogine lost this battle, but was not going to give up.
According to Alekseev, it was the Redutovites that were to play a decisive role in the first days of the invasion. According to one of the sources, these militants also included a group that was in Kyiv and was supposed to kill Zelensky on the day of the invasion.
Prigogine, who fell into disgrace, was given a supporting role. Judging by the metadata of Alekseev's phone calls, on the eve of the invasion, on February 20, Prigozhin tried to get through to him, but Alekseev did not pick up the phone and did not call back. Prigogine was able to get through to him only on the day of the invasion, and even then not for long - their conversation lasted less than two minutes.
February 24 was supposed to be a day of triumph for General Alekseev, but, as often happened to him, everything did not go according to plan. Many of the plans of the GRU turned out to be known in advance to the Western and Ukrainian special services. There was no surprise effect, and the first days of the invasion ended in catastrophic losses for the Russian troops, and especially for the Redut, which, according to some estimates, lost up to 90% of its forces. In a matter of days, General Alekseev practically lost the newly created PMC. And although the idea of new PMCs in the GRU was not abandoned (they, for example, oversee the Gazprom PMC Potok), Alekseev has not restored his former strength since then.
Already in March 2022, it became clear: the bet on the storming of Kyiv did not materialize, and the war would not end with the help of special forces alone, no matter what Margarita Simonyan promised. On March 19, Prigozhin's "musicians" entered into hostilities, on the same day, a new activation of calls from Alekseev and Prigozhin is visible, and this time Alekseev called first.
In April, the situation worsened: the encirclement of Kyiv failed, the troops were transferred to the east of Ukraine, where they got stuck in a long positional war. For Prigozhin, this was a chance to seize the initiative. Taking advantage of “access to the body”, that is, the opportunity to personally meet with Putin (which was exclusive before, and after the start of a full-scale war, when the circle of persons allowed to communicate was narrowed to a dozen security officials, it became a completely unique chance), Prigozhin received the right to prove his utility. He was allowed to publicly acknowledge his involvement in the Wagner PMC and start open recruitment through posters on the streets, advertisements in the state media (mainly regional ones), and recruit convicts. Twice convicted Prigozhin, who once strangled women on the streets of Leningrad to pull off their boots, could find a common language with the criminals and went on a tour of prisons, recruiting militants. Over the summer, he has already gathered several thousand recruits, reinforcing them with "musicians" who were returned from Africa, Syria and other regions.
In September, the shortage of people at the front began to be felt especially acutely. Ukraine launched a large-scale counter-offensive, panic reigned in the Kremlin, Putin had to, contrary to his promises, hastily announce mobilization. It was then that Prigozhin's convicts turned out to be most welcome. True, they did not know how to fight at all, but they could be thrown into the line of fire like cannon fodder without sparing. At the same time, Prigozhin felt that he had an unexpected ally: in September, Ramzan Kadyrov openly criticized the military leadership for retreating. In October, the head of Chechnya lashed out at General Lapin, then head of the ground forces. At the end of October, Lapin was removed. It is still unclear whether Kadyrov criticized him on his own initiative or only participated in internal Kremlin intrigues - one way or another, the General Staff came under pressure not only from Prigozhin, but also from Kadyrov.
In November, the Ministry of Defense had to make a humiliating "act of good will" and leave Kherson. This aroused the indignation of that part of the Russian public that supported the war. Prigozhin, through his network of Telegram channels (positioned as a network of “war correspondents”) and junk sites, actively inflated this negative background. In January 2023, Prigozhin reached the peak of his Napoleonic career: he reported for the capture of Soledar by the Wagnerites. Soledar, where 10 thousand people lived in peacetime, is, of course, far from Kherson, but it was important for Prigogine to show that while the Ministry of Defense leaves the cities, the “Wagnerites” take these cities. Even Kadyrov, with his "Tik-Tok Troops" who used every opportunity to report on some success, could not boast of anything like that in the past few months.
Dizzy with success
By the beginning of 2023, Prigozhin's PR had become so noisy that he was noticed abroad. Western analysts in all seriousness began to discuss his "political ambitions": someone read him as a rival to Putin, someone, on the contrary, saw him as Putin's successor. But the main thing is that Prigogine seems to have believed in his own greatness himself. Until recently, he could not even with all the desperate attempts to overthrow the St. Petersburg governor Beglov, and now he decided to take a swing at Shoigu himself - the person with whom Putin spends every vacation and communicates more closely than with Alina Kabaeva.
Prigozhin understood that the capture of Soledar could not be sold as a great military feat, and made a bet on Bakhmut. Actually, Bakhmut is not of great strategic importance, but Prigozhin turned the chronicle of his assault into a popular TV show. Even the state channels believed that this was the new Stalingrad, and began to follow the slow advance of the "Wagnerites", expecting the imminent surrender of the city. Perhaps if the “musicians” had managed to take the city and move on, Prigogine would indeed have strengthened noticeably. But Prigozhin had few experienced fighters, and convicts and recruits who went to Ukrainian positions like zombies, often without even bulletproof vests, turned out to be helpless where it was necessary to take well-fortified positions. The advance in Bakhmut gradually slowed down and soon finally stopped. By the end of April, Prigozhin realized that he simply did not have the people or weapons to win in Bakhmut.
Of course, he could not admit defeat, so he had to play out a drama where he filmed the corpses of the “Wagnerites” on video and cursed Shoigu and Gerasimov for not sending shells. There were indeed interruptions in the supply of shells - as they had been along the entire front line for many months. In reality, Prigozhin did not run out of shells, but people, and Shoigu had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Prigozhin intended to present his departure from Bakhmut as a betrayal of the Ministry of Defense and leave gracefully, handing over positions to his "ally" Kadyrov. Kadyrov, knowing full well on whose side the force is, suddenly criticized Prigogine. He stated that "together with the Ministry of Defense" he, of course, was ready to take positions in Bakhmut, but he considered the behavior of his "brother" to be wrong, and promised that his people would contact "Zhenya" and explain how to behave further. Western analysts, who only recently saw Prigozhin as a rival to Putin, rushed to predict with no less credibility that Prigozhin would soon be destroyed.
Prigozhin still hopes to regain the lost initiative and continues to actively recruit (although he was removed from prisons). The Ukrainian counteroffensive that has begun plays in his favor - the Kremlin has very few resources and it needs "musicians". However, it seems that the main moment of Prigozhin's glory is already behind him: he has few resources left, his conflicts with the Ministry of Defense (and now Kadyrov) have become a big burden, and the ambiguous statement about the naive "grandfather turned out to be a complete asshole" may be the last straw. And although the predictions of brutal reprisals made by some Western analysts are not very realistic, Prigozhin can really fall into disgrace and repeat the path of Girkin, who, in the first few months of the war, acquire the halo of a hero, and then simply disappeared from the information space, as if he had never been there. and was not.