Late last week, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was handed a harsh judgment: After a court hit him with a new 19-year sentence in a penal colony, he was sent immediately to a punishment cell.
It was a stark contrast to the fate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Back in June, Prigozhin led the abortive mutiny that presented the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in over two decades of rule. While Prigozhin’s troops stopped short of Moscow, a furious Putin said in a televised speech that those on the “path of treason” would face punishment. Almost two months later, in the case of the Wagner chief, this simply hasn’t happened.
Clearly, the price for confronting Putin is not fixed. Perhaps more surprisingly, Prigozhin hasn’t even kept a low profile since the June uprising.
Just weeks after the insurrection, Prigozhin popped up on the sidelines of the recent Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, shaking hands with a dignitary from the Central African Republic (CAR).
To be sure, the mercenary boss was not striking a martial pose: While subscribers to his Telegram channel have become accustomed to seeing him in camouflage and tactical gear, Prigozhin was spotted in a polo shirt and mom jeans, cutting a seemingly more mild-mannered figure than in months past.
But pity the poor Russian diplomat who has to explain why Prigozhin – whose forces shot down Russian military aircraft and killed Russian military servicemembers on their march toward the capital – remains at large.
That’s exactly what happened when CNN’s Christiane Amanpour confronted Andrei Kelin, the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom, about the bizarre spectacle of Prigozhin’s post-mutiny appearance.
Wagner’s insurrection, Kelin conceded, might constitute a form of “high treason.” But the ambassador went on to explain that Putin has decided to let bygones be bygones.
“The president has qualified it when it has started, then it was all over,” Kelin said. “Now he’s traveling someplace, so we do recognize some hero deeds by Wagner groups,” alluding to Wagner’s apparent battlefield successes around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Amanpour, however, pressed Kelin further.
“What I would like to understand, why is it that people like (jailed dissident Vladimir) Kara-Murza, the intellectual, others, Navalny are in jail for verbally protesting and disagreeing with the Russian government, but… Prigozhin, who tried to commit a coup against the Kremlin, maybe even against the President himself – an armed coup – is still wandering around free in Russia? He was photographed meeting with African leaders during this week’s summit in St. Petersburg, why is he not in jail for treason?”
Kelin evaded at first, saying he didn’t recall that Russian soldiers died during the Wagner mutiny. Pressed by Amanpour, Kelin conceded that he had no explanation. Longtime observers, too, are searching for explanations about Prigozhin’s future.
Experts believe that the Wagner boss still has value to Putin, even though the stature of both men has diminished.
“Prigozhin’s stock with the Kremlin has clearly taken a hit,” said Candace Rondeaux, director of Future Frontlines, an open source intelligence service at the think tank New America. “But since Putin lost even more stock after the mutiny it seems he believes some utility remains in keeping Prigozhin around.”
Prigozhin’s business acumen – and his skill at concealing commercial gains through an opaque network of front companies and offshore operations – are an asset for Putin’s Russia, which has been hit by sweeping Western economic sanctions, Rondeaux said.
“At this point, Prigozhin’s networks of shell companies are the best insurance Putin has to keep Russia’s war economy,” she said. “But it’s not likely to stay that way forever – eventually something has got to give. And there is a good chance once it does we’ll see more spectacular events closer to the border between Poland and Belarus.”
Rondeaux was referring to the recent relocation of some Wagner fighters to Belarus. The move – apparently part of a deal brokered to end the June mutiny – has already raised alarms in Poland, a NATO member next door to Belarus.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said that 100 troops from Wagner were moving toward a thin strip of land between Poland and Lithuania, with the possible intent of posing as migrants to cross the border.
It’s unclear exactly how many Wagner troops are in Belarus, and whether or not they have access to heavy weaponry. But Morawiecki seemed to be pointing to one potential scenario for Wagner mischief: Promoting some kind of destabilization along NATO’s eastern frontier.
Wagner’s African footprint
And then there are Prigozhin’s plans for another region: Vulnerable and unstable countries in Africa, where Wagner has already conducted a series of operations.
Speaking after Wagner fighters relocated to Belarus, Prigozhin suggested he remained focused on this core African market.
“To ensure that there are no secrets and behind-the-scenes conversations, I am informing you that the Wagner Group continues its activities in Africa, as well as at the training centers in Belarus,” Prigozhin said in an audio message shared on Telegram accounts associated with the Wagner group.
Prigozhin’s forces are already implicated in activities in Sudan – where Wagner has supplied the militia battling Sudan’s army – and has operated extensively in the CAR and in Libya.
He may also sense opportunities in Niger, after a recent military coup threatened to spark a major regional crisis. In a recent Telegram message, Prigozhin hinted that Wagner might be ready to offer its services there.
“What happened in Niger has been brewing for years,” Prigozhin said. “The former colonizers are trying to keep the people of African countries in check. In order to keep them in check, the former colonizers are filling these countries with terrorists and various bandit formations. Thus creating a colossal security crisis.”
Then followed his hard sell. “The population suffers,” he said. “And this is the (the reason for the) love for PMC Wagner, this is the high efficiency of PMC Wagner. Because a thousand soldiers of PMC Wagner are able to establish order and destroy terrorists, preventing them from harming the peaceful population of states.”
That might be dismissed as pure bluster and salesmanship. But it’s worth noting that Prigozhin’s sale pitch was at odds with the view of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which called for the “prompt release” of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum by the military.
And that’s where things can still get interesting back in Russia. By defying Putin and evading punishment, Prigozhin seems to have built and sustained a competing center of gravity to the Kremlin.
In a recent analysis, Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said Prigozhin had effectively chipped away at the “power vertical” – Putin’s longstanding system of top-down rule.
“Putin’s much-hyped ‘power vertical’ has disappeared,” she wrote. “Instead of a strong hand, there are dozens of mini-Prigozhins, and while they may be more predictable than the Wagner leader, they are no less dangerous. All of them know full well that a post-Putin Russia is already here – even as Putin remains in charge – and that it’s time to take up arms and prepare for a battle for power.”