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An Empire of Lies: Prigozhin’s Absence Won’t End Russian Meddling in Western Politics

Tyrannies have to act, constantly. Thinking comes later. So Russian disinformation will not end with the demise of one oligarch

Yevgeny Prigozhin with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s embattled leader, hasn’t been seen since 23 or 24 June, when he was filmed in Rostov-on-Don claiming he’d overrun Russia’s Southern Command military headquarters without firing a shot. Since then, his frequent angry tirades on the messaging app Telegram have all but died. He’s spoken only twice, asking for support from the Russian people. 

While Prigozhin’s whereabouts aren’t known, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has moved swiftly to dismantle Prigozhin’s businesses and close his ‘patriotic’’ media outlets, like Ria Fan, an ultra-nationalist media company controlled by another Prigozhin-owned company, Patriot. Among these companies are entities that interfered in both British and American politics. Meanwhile, pro-Putin Trolls have swamped Russian social media sites with anti-Prigozhin posts, while law enforcement, police, and state officials raided businesses connected to the warlord. In St Petersburg, workers were seen scraping Wagner signage off the building.

Adding to Prigozhin’s problems, a Russian group that monitors trolling by Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency says it believes the Russian state moved quickly to control of the St Petersburg-based organisation that’s previously received at least $50 million in funding from Moscow. The IRA has been directly linked to interfering in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. election by Robert Mueller, the former FBI chief who conducted the investigation into Donald Trump’s links to Russia. The IRA received $50 million from the Kremlin between 2014 and 2018, Mueller said, and Putin has admitted the funding. 

Prigozhin taunted the UK government after he was allowed to sue Amsterdam-based Bellingcat’s Elliot Higgins, despite sanctions on Wagner and its owner. Bellingcat had linked Prigozhin to Wagner, as had scores of other news agencies, and exposed his ties to companies like Concord, which has a vast catering contract with the Russian army. Britain’s Treasury Department allowed the legal action to proceed despite the fact that Prigozhin was sanctioned by the same Treasury – and despite the fact that Prigozhin frequently bragged about his connection to Wagner. As with the government’s ties with the Lebedevs, it was another example of this government being soft on Russian oligarchs. 

What happens next is impossible to predict. Autocracies like Russia don’t have rules. Belarus’ dictator, Alexandr Lukashenko, who brokered an end to Wagner’s attempted mutiny on 23 June, has hinted that the Wagner leader has returned to Russia. That may be true, or it may be a lie. Prigozhin’s plane has made flights between Minsk and Moscow, according to the aircraft’s transponder, but there’s no proof he was on it. 

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Indeed, Lukashenko may not have brokered the deal. It’s equally likely he was told to announce the deal to save Russian blushes and give Putin time to formulate a response. Putin, notoriously disorganised, is almost the opposite of his portrayal as a savvy, Machiavellian master of intrigue. The Russian author Masha Gessen portrays him as dumb, crude, and poorly educated. ‘’I really can’t abide conspiracy theories,’’ she writes. ‘’I believe that everything in the world stems from idiocy and incompetence. That’s certainly true of most of what’s happened in Russia under Putin.’’ 

What’s certain is that the aftermath of the rebellion leaves both Russia and Wagner in a messy turmoil. Russia’s losses of heavy armour and men in Ukraine is devastating at a time when Ukraine, while still outgunned, is acquiring more tanks, heavy artillery, and multi-launch rocket launchers. That means Ukraine is rapidly catching up, and without an early end to the war, will soon have more weaponry than their invading enemy. 

Meanwhile, dependent on African gold mined by Wagner in the Central African Republic and Sudan, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last week told African leaders that he’d ensure Wagner’s mercenaries would remain on African soil and be absorbed into the Russian military. That could effectively mean Prigozhin won’t be able to seek sanctuary in Africa. 

Russia has often been described as a ‘Mafia state,’’ meaning that immense wealth belongs to or is controlled by the very top levels of government. It’s also, by default, an autocracy.

When Putin’s apparatchiks take control of organisations like the Internet Research Agency, the work will continue and newspapers around the world will still be trolled by underpaid Russians, most especially in their comment sections. So will Amazon book reviews and social media. In short, usurping Prigozhin, or even killing him, won’t change a great deal of the way Russia works outside its borders. That’s because tyrannies have to act, constantly. Thinking comes later. 

Belarus, also an autocracy, doesn’t know where Prigozhin is. One Russian outlet said he’d been seen in St Petersburg, but that’s unconfirmed. It’s also significant that Belarus says it doesn’t know where the Wagner mercenaries are. They may have retreated into Belarus from Ukraine when the mutiny faltered, but they’ve left again, Lukashenko said. 

The difficulty is that Putin, Prigozhin, and Lukashenko frequently resort to lies, both to foreign leaders and their own people, who are resigned to living in the fog of untruth. It’ll likely take years to unravel the tangle of lies.

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