Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Putin faces challenge from his own creation

Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo: Getty)

It took a characteristically long time for Vladimir Putin to respond to the coup-that-dare-not-speak-its-name launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin, but when his statement came, it was steeped in bitterness. And no wonder, for Prigozhin was essentially Putin’s creation, and we know that Putin’s greatest venom is reserved for those he considers traitors.

An ex-con who moved into the hot dog business and then finer dining options, Prigozhin’s early restaurant business in 1990s St Petersburg was given a dramatic boost by the patronage of the deputy mayor, one Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s Concord business group expanded dramatically, moving first into supermarkets, then everything from real estate to advertising, but almost always on the back of sweetheart contracts from the government once Putin was president.

It is not that he was ever a friend or close confidant of the president. Rather, he became one of the Kremlin’s go-to businesspeople, ready to do whatever needed doing, for a fat fee. This is why he ended up running the infamous Internet Research Agency that did its best to meddle in the 2014 US presidential elections and then the Wagner mercenary group. Deniability and a degree of thuggish managerial verve was what he offered, and the Kremlin was buying.

His then-undeclared role with Wagner, though, was what set him on a collision course with not just Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu but the whole Putin regime. He may claim that ‘this is not a coup’ but a ‘march for justice,’ but by seeking to impose his own will on the government, by threatening to ‘take down everyone you send against us,’ and then to assert that he and his men are ‘patriots’ who no longer wanted to live ‘under corruption, lies, and bureaucracy,’ he is throwing down a gauntlet to the whole system.

Hence Putin’s anger. He has a particular and abiding hatred of those he considers traitors, to the Motherland but also more specifically to himself.

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