Criticizing the military is illegal in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and openly displaying political ambitions that could challenge the president’s strongman is highly ill-advised. However, the head of the Wagner mercenaries, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, boasts of doing both and, for now at least, seems to get away with it.

Prigozhin, the innkeeper-turned-warlord who deployed his private army – bolstered by thousands of convicts he recruited from prison – to Ukraine, has been locked in a fierce dispute for weeks with Russia’s military leadership, repeatedly accusing the minister of incompetence. Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and other commanders.

That fight took a grisly turn this month when Wagner fighters and regular Russian soldiers ended up in a firefight near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, ending with mercenaries arresting a lieutenant colonel.

Prigozhin professes complete loyalty to Putin. But he has also delivered speeches and held press conferences across Russia in what looks like a campaign tour, a possible red line in a country where any political defiance is seen as treason. This has led many Russian watchers to ask: Why does Putin tolerate this?

Criticizing the army is a crime in Russia
Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside St. Petersburg in 2010.

With the war in Ukraine going badly, some analysts say the Russian leader may have no choice. Prigozhin, at least, is an ardent supporter of war – he simply insists that it should be more brutal and effective. By fully supporting the war and a full mobilization of Russian society, Prigozhin may have ensured security.

“The regime simply cannot afford to suppress the representatives of the ‘patriotic’ camp, which is no longer very happy with the president: He started the war, but he still cannot win it,” says Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former speechwriter for the Kremlin.

“If they put pressure on this part of public opinion,” Gallyamov said, “they [turn] into opposition and say: ‘It turns out that Putin’s critics were right and he really has become a dictator.'”

Other analysts say that Putin is fully confident in his role and does not perceive any threat from Prigozhin, which may be a miscalculation.

“Prigozhin is in a gray area where he has a mandate from Putin to act, but the boundaries of which are not clearly defined,” said political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. “So Prigozhin is testing his limits, and seeing no serious resistance, he continues to push them.”

From the outside, we can see Prigozhin as a danger to the regime, and in the long term he can be a problem for Putin, but if we look at this through Putin’s eyes, I think he doesn’t see him as a threat,” Stanovaya said. “Prigozhin is loyal, absolutely dependent on the government, and can be [stripped] of all resources at once, if necessary.”

There is a chance, Stanovaya noted, that Putin “does not fully grasp the magnitude” of Prigozhin’s rising visibility. State television networks, revered by Putin as controllers of public opinion, have banned Prigozhin from their airwaves, limiting him to online media and Telegram blogs.

“In Putin’s world, the Internet, all these sites, blogs and social networks, are the periphery,” Stanovaya says.

Although Putin has not publicly reprimanded Prigozhin, there are indications that the Russian president intervened earlier this year to mark the differences between Prigozhin and Wagner.

The appointment of Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, whom Prigozhin had publicly rebuked, as commanding general of the war in Ukraine was seen as a blow to Wagner. Prigozhin also lost his main source of manpower when the Defense Ministry banned him from recruiting in prisons.

According to classified US intelligence documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform, Putin arranged a meeting between Prigozhin and Shoigu in February to discuss a dispute over an alleged insufficient supply of ammunition in Bakhmut.

In the latest round of fighting, Shoigu decreed last week that all “volunteer formations” must sign a contract with the Defense Ministry by July 1. Prigozhin said that Wagner would not do it.

After withdrawing his mercenaries from Bakhmut, which Russia effectively took in late May, Prigozhin tried to cash in on that success on the battlefield and get some real-world exposure with the regional media.

He spent a couple of weeks giving interviews to pro-war journalists, even using one of them to warn of a possible revolution in Russia. He also held lengthy question-and-answer sessions in four major cities to promote an ill-defined project called “Wagner: The Second Front Line.”

“Not to be frantic, but [we need] to give people the truthful information that will force society to mobilize,” Prigozhin said cryptically, vowing to continue his “political briefings.” And he added: “Until we mobilize, we will not win the war.”

Gallyamov, the former speechwriter, said any crackdown on Prigozhin risked aligning his supporters with other anti-Putin movements, including that of jailed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“Figuratively speaking, shortly after Prigozhin finds himself in a cell next to Navalny, his supporters will find themselves on the same side of the barricades as the latter’s supporters,” Gallyamov said.

There are few polls on Prigozhin’s appeal at the national level, but a recent report by Russian Field, an independent research agency, claimed that 2% of Russians polled would vote for Prigozhin in a presidential election, the same as Navalny. This is a higher number than many politicians, including Shoigu, but lower than Putin’s 30%.

The survey also suggests that Prigozhin’s visibility among average Russians is growing rapidly. “The speed with which Prigozhin has won…it’s a rush, because a year ago he had nothing,” Stanovaya said.

In a curious twist on Russia’s chaotic political life, some Kremlin observers noted that several of Prigozhin’s topics of conversation now coincide with those of the liberal part of Russian society, including Navalny’s supporters, namely that war it is deadly, it will last a long time and it will be expensive for Russia.

In his speeches, Prigozhin draws on trusted populist tropes, presenting himself as “a man of the people” who speaks directly to ordinary Russians and opposes the detached elites of Rublyovka, a wealthy western Moscow neighborhood that also serves as a collective name for the country’s rich and powerful. Navalny has built much of his political capital by denouncing corruption and the illicit wealth of elites.

But there are also big differences. Navalny has opposed Putin for decades and has called for an end to the war, while Prigozhin represents an even more extreme version of Putin’s policies, fully supporting an authoritarian leadership.

Navalny has also called for Russia to be free, democratic and “happy.” Prigozhin has taken a somewhat darker tack, declaring at one point that the Russians should live “like North Korea for a few years” to achieve anything resembling a victory in Ukraine. Such a campaign slogan is unlikely to have much popular appeal.

Mary Ilyushina