Russian Analyst Outlines Wagner's Prigozhin's Threat to Putin's Power

The head of the mercenary Wagner Group does not pose a major threat to the military aspirations of Russian President Vladimir Putin so long as boundaries remain, according to Russian expert Tatiana Stanovaya.

Stanovaya, founder of the Russian political analysis website R.Politik, wrote about whether Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Putin ally or threat in an op-ed for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Prigozhin's paramilitary unit has participated in Russian military offensives in Ukraine's Donbas region. Previously, he declared a premature victory in the salt-mining town of Soledar.

Putin Prigozhin Wagner Group Russia Ukraine Army
Consternation between Russian President Vladimir Putin's (left) military officials and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) and his men have ramped up over the course of the last few months. SERGEI ILYIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images; SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

He recently told The Moscow Times, an independent newspaper based in Amsterdam, that his troops "will not be celebrating in the near future" as the battle in Bakhmut continues. More reservists are entering the fold, he said, executing a strategy of "heavy resistance and grinding."

"Any success for Prigozhin is seen as proof of his might and glittering future, while every failure is seen as a sign of his imminent downfall," Sanovaya wrote in her op-ed. "For now, neither version is entirely realistic."

She references Prigozhin's status as a private individual with an "informal" relationship to Putin and the Kremlin, with not enough trust built between the two to develop a closer military accord.

However, Russia's lack of military success and the war now approaching the one-year mark has allowed Prigozhin and his fighters to fill battlefield gaps—"gray geopolitical tactics," as Stanovaya describes, "that unwieldy official institutions would struggle to deliver."

The Mix of Russian Fighters Will Continue

Putin views Prigozhin in a "cooler way" than the Russian elite, Stanovaya told Newsweek on Wednesday. It may be because Putin understands him and his cause, as well as his patriotism.

"I think that for Putin the most important [thing] is not how Russia looks, and not the very fact that Prigozhin publicly exposes vulnerabilities of the Russian army," she said. "It's more that they compete and prevent each other from achieving goals."

That could include behind-the-scenes discussions with Putin and his highest military officials related to the fulfillment of military objectives and Wagner's role in potentially hindering them.

"For Prigozhin it's rather hard," she said. "We saw in some of his statements, he tries not to let criticism go out. But sometimes emotions take over and he starts criticizing again...It's hard for him to withdraw from critics and [he] views the situation as very unjust."

There's also the fact that the Wagner Group's presence means more bodies on the battlefield, in which Putin "just agreed to try to rely on different kinds of players—not only on the Russian army, but especially as it had to face a lot of difficulties, losses, logistics problems, etc.

"At the moment, Putin said 'why not' as Wagner showed itself in Syria and otherwise," Stanovaya said. "They had military experience and needed to deliver to Putin military gains."

But now reports are surfacing of the Russian Defense Ministry taking over Wagner's role of prisoner recruitment.

She predicts no major changes as it pertains to the short-term outlook of this war. A lot of it, she said, depends on victories and losses incurred on the battlefield and who will receive blame for negative outcomes.

Putin has shown flexibility in his sporadic military strategies, she added.

"Even if Prigozhin rationally understands that he has, and he will, respect all these demands from the Kremlin to withdraw from criticizing the army, sometimes he just can lose his temper and it will not stop," she said. "This competition and conflict will not stop; it will be simmering."