The Putin and Wagner Group Clash Is Coming to a Head

  • Yevgeny Prigozhin—known as "Putin's chef"—has claimed credit for Russia's battlefield victory in Soledar
  • Experts have told Newsweek he is targeting a more prominent role, but the rift is growing in his relationship with the Kremlin
  • So what next for the man who wants to be a "hero" of Russia but now leads a "suicide squad"?

He was once reduced to selling hot dogs after serving a prison sentence for robbery and fraud. Since then, Yevgeny Prigozhin has enjoyed a rapid ascent in Russian society, amassing a huge fortune and emerging last year as a key player in the war started by his close ally Vladimir Putin.

The 61-year-old Russian businessman, who earned the nickname "Putin's chef" through his catering contracts with the Kremlin, has given himself credit for the January capture of Soledar. The small salt-mining town Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region was Russia's first battlefield gain in Ukraine since the summer of 2022.

Wagner and Vladimir Putin
In this composite image, an unexploded shell lies stuck in the ground on January 4, 2023, in Bakhmut, Ukraine; Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) on February 1, 2023; and a file photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin at Konstantin Palace, Russia. Getty

Now, however, months after declaring himself as the mastermind behind the notorious paramilitary outfit the Wagner Group, Prigozhin seems to be losing his influence in the war. As his appetite has grown in the political sphere, cracks are beginning to show in his relationship with the Kremlin.

Rifts over battlefield failures in Ukraine are becoming increasingly frequent. He has also been lauding his fighters as the most effective units in the war despite their failure to make significant advances in the embattled city of Bakhmut, into which he has poured his fighters—largely Russian convicts—for the past six months.

The Wagner Group, which has been heavily involved in the current fighting in Ukraine and assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, now seems to be playing a less prominent role in operations around Bakhmut. Putin is gradually replacing Wagner fighters, favoring instead professional military personnel and government officials.

In doing so, the Kremlin appears to be sending a very public message to Prigozhin—that the Russian defense ministry is running the conflict and can finish the war without him.

Prigozhin's Ambitions

Ever since Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows in September 2022, his potential political ambitions have been the topic of intense speculation.

Prigozhin, who was born in St. Petersburg and who himself served years behind bars, quickly made a name for himself in the war after he was seen in a leaked video recruiting soldiers from Russia's extensive penitentiary system, amid reports that the country was facing personnel shortages in Ukraine.

For months he has been spearheading a recruitment drive, offering male prisoners commuted sentences and cash incentives in return for six months of military service in Ukraine. To do this, he has had to push Putin to secretly pardon convicts recruited to fight in Ukraine.

Joana de Deus Pereira, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, said that at the beginning of the war, a largely commercial relationship existed between the Kremlin and Wagner Group. The paramilitary outfit was initially seen as a "very useful tool" and as "an instrument of war," she said.

When Prigozhin finally admitted he was the financial sponsor of the Wagner Group, "in his speech, you can see a clear building of a political character," she told Newsweek.

"Now, Prigozhin has become much more dangerous in terms of the political persona he wants to be," she said.

The relationship between Prigozhin and the Kremlin began to disintegrate when the businessman began presenting himself as both a military solution for the conflict and a political solution.

There has been a "crescendo" of publicity since he announced himself to be the founder of the Wagner Group, she said.

"He sees himself as a defense minister or someone with a high profile inside the Kremlin, at least visible and respectful enough to be rewarded for what he has been doing for the country."

Vlad Mykhnenko, an expert in the post-communist transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the University of Oxford, said Prigozhin seems to have decided that he needs a bigger public role in Russia.

"He is not satisfied anymore with just being a shadowy private sector contractor. He looks like he wants something more, a more serious official public kind of job," Mykhnenko told Newsweek.

The Wagner Group is now losing its power "because the Kremlin wants also to show that they are the ones in charge," said de Deus Pereira from RUSI.

Prigozhin, she said, is "moved by national pride and money."

"He wants to be recognized for his feats, but if he said he has political aspirations, that moment he would be killed. He desperately wants to be seen as a hero—once he is, he has Russian public opinion validation. So he needs to become not only a tool of war, but the hero," she added.

How Soledar Sparked Tensions

After Soledar's capture, Prigozhin released a video praising his fighters as "probably the most experienced army in the world today."

Tensions mounted when Putin attributed success in Soledar to his defense ministry, making no mention of the Wagner Group. Prigozhin accused the ministry of attempting to downplay the Wagner Group's role in the capture of Soledar, and of belittling its achievements.

Shortly before he claimed to have captured Soledar, he released a video on his Telegram channel, purportedly taken in the town's network of salt mines, caves and 125 miles of tunnels. According to de Deus Pereira, this was Prigozhin's boldest move yet in displaying his political ambitions.

"Looking at symbology, everything that Prigozhin does has meaning. He had a package of salt and paid with salt someone inside a car. He was basically saying we not only control the mines but we also control the villagers and the citizens of Soledar," she said.

"This was a clear message—not only that they control the field, but they also control the people. He wanted to convey this message to his Russian counterparts."

Prigozhin's objective, she said, is to capitalize on his participation in the war and to become a central figure in Russian politics.

Mykhnenko said he believes Prigozhin used Soledar to save his image amid the Wagner Group's setbacks in Bakhmut.

"He used Soledar as a decoy, it was a smaller price, and declared this massive victory understanding that Bakhmut probably will be and is beyond reach," he said.

'Suicide Squad'

As the war drags on, and as the Wagner Group loses a significant number of fighters in the brutal battle for Bakhmut, reports and data indicate that Prigozhin is facing difficulties finding new recruits.

The decline in Russia's inmate population between November 2022 and January 2023 (about 6,000 people) remained largely on trend with previous years, independent Russian news outlet Mediazona reported on January 31, citing statistics from the Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS).

In November 2022, the FPS reported that the male prison population in Russia had decreased by 23,000 in two months against the backdrop of Prigozhin's ramped up recruitment drive.

In December, David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, the ex-U.S. Marine jailed in Russia, said he learned that the Wagner Group has been unsuccessfully attempting to recruit more convicts for the war.

"Everyone else has a clear picture of what happens to prisoners who go to fight the Kremlin's war in Ukraine," he said in a statement, noting that in a previous round of recruitment, the group managed to recruit 115 men, but more recently, only eight volunteered.

It means the battle for Bakhmut has diminished the stature of Prigozhin's once elite fighters for hire.

The Wagner Group is effectively a "suicide squad," said Mykhnenko, adding: "That's not a really big promotional, unique selling point."

Prigozhin Sidelined

A clear example of Putin snubbing Prigozhin, Mykhnenko said, is when Putin went to St. Petersburg in January and "did not visibly meet [Prigozhin]...although apparently he was asking for a meeting."

Putin held a working meeting with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov on January 18. The pair discussed the governor's volunteer battalions for the war.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, has described Beglov as "one of Prigozhin's overt enemies," and notes the Wagner leader once waged a campaign to have the governor removed from office.

Mykhnenko said footage published by the Kremlin showing Putin and Beglov standing next to each other "was a sign for Prigozhin to back off."

"The Kremlin is trying to now put the genie back into the bottle in a way by sending the Wagner Group through the meat grinder in Bakhmut and cutting them off...telling Prigozhin, we will finish the war without you," he said.

Newsweek has contacted Prigozhin and Russia's foreign ministry for comment.