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As a Diminished Wagner Regroups, the Greater Threat to the West from Prigozhin’s Troll Farms Remains Unscathed

Putin is quite likely to silence Prigozhin, but he’s equally likely to let him retain control of the notorious St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency which specialises in influencing foreign elections, writes Brian Latham

Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS

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Yevgeny Prigozhin may have lost his grip on the Wagner Group following his failed coup (or protest) of 23 June, but he’s still part of Vladimir Putin’s parallel government – including the troll farms that pump out dis-and-misinformation to shape elections. That means Britain can expect those trolls to amp up their campaigns because, at the very latest, the UK must head to the polls on 28 January 2025. 

Wagner was a threat to Ukraine, but it was never a serious threat to the West. At its peak, the mercenary group had 78,000 fighters in Ukraine, including about 50,000 untrained convicts. By the time of the attempted coup, only 25,000 were fit to fight – a staggering 68% had been killed or wounded. 

Of the 25,000 still active, about 10,000 are in neighbouring Belarus or heading there. According to the Belarusian Hajun Project, which monitors Wagner’s movements and social media, a video on the messaging app Telegram shows Prigozhin passing Wagner’s flag to someone named only as “Sergei” at a barracks in Belarus. At the same ceremony, Prigozhin says that Wagner will seek “new roads to Africa”, where it is already operating in Libya, Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic.

The remaining 15,000 will “go on holiday”, the video shows. More likely they’ll be absorbed into the regular Russian Army. After all, Putin has said the Russian state had been financing Wagner since the war in Ukraine began and that Russia had paid the mercenaries ₽‎86 million in the last year (that’s less than a pitiful million pounds, but to a domestic audience mainly earning less than $1,000 a month, it sounds huge). 

Wagner – like most of Prigozhin’s companies under the umbrella of his Concord Management and Consulting Co. – is part of the Russian President’s parallel government. Authoritarian regimes across the globe use ‘parallel institutions’ to perform tasks official government departments and forces cannot do legally. That’s how Putin persuaded former US President Donald Trump that Russian disinformation was the work of “private individuals” back in 2018. It’s what Western spooks call ‘plausible deniability’ – and Russians call just another Tuesday. 

And it is the biggest menace the West faces from Russia. With Brits heading towards an election campaign, it’s an immediate threat – a much bigger one than an ill-trained rabble of street fighters.

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Russia has been using parallel structures to influence Western elections and policy since at least the 1960s, but the internet – and Putin’s unplumbable cynicism – make Russia’s job infinitely easier. 

In other words, Wagner isn’t a major threat unless you’re African, but Wagner’s parent company, Concord, most definitely is.

The UK Government has already compromised its own sanctions on Prigozhin by allowing the Russian strongman to sue a British journalist, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, and by allowing Prigozhin’s British lawyers to be paid from a Russian bank. That wasn’t the first example of Russian influence in Britain, and likely won’t be the last.

For at least 20 years, there’ve been allegations of Russian billionaires subverting British courts and cosying up to politicians. 

According to the UK Parliament’s 2020 Russia Report, Russian influence was “the new normal” and “Londongrad” the money laundering capital of choice for Putin’s oligarchs.

That’s because the new Russia is the old Russia. Putin’s stupefyingly speedy rise to power was engineered by a faction of the ancien regime’s Soviet KGB that played on Boris Yeltsin’s infirmities and was unwittingly assisted by a Swiss raid on a bank linked to Yeltsin’s family, particularly his daughter. The potential for scandal rocketed Putin from relative obscurity straight to the presidency.

Putin had been an obscure KGB liaison officer in Dresden, East Germany, and subsequently, after various stints, head of the FSB – one of the organs formed on Yeltsin’s break-up of the KGB. He’d managed to persuade both Russian democrats and the old guard of the KGB’s foreign intelligence department that he was reliable. 

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One of those stints was as deputy mayor of St Petersburg immediately after the fall of communism. Ordinary Russians were staring starvation in the face because food supplies had all but stopped and inflation was soaring. Tasked with creating deals with foreign countries to import food, Putin formed an alliance with the notoriously violent Tambov gang to manipulate the system. 

Despite overwhelming evidence that Putin has always used ‘parallel structures’ – from criminal gangs to mercenary groups – to maintain control over a largely pliant nation, the West inevitably concentrates on Russia’s official structures.

Putin is quite likely to silence Prigozhin, but he’s equally likely to let him retain control – if not of Wagner, then of the notorious St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which is arguably Russia’s biggest troll farm and the one most involved in efforts to influence foreign elections. 

The reality is that the millions of Western armchair warriors would profit by paying less attention to Wagner and more to Putin and, while he’s alive, Prigozhin. The real enemy is Russia’s mastery of metapolitics, a term beloved of the global alt-right to describe methods of changing a society’s culture and ideology, primarily by making “right-wing Gramscism’” (itself an oxymoron) the preferred method of government.

It worked for Trump, and it likely worked for Brexit… History repeats itself. 

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