The boss of the Russian private military company Wagner has recently been causing a stir with his outlandish and provocative statements on social media platforms like Telegram.
Prigozhin, the boss in question, has been divulging alarming information about a setback suffered by Russia on the battlefield, lamenting the alleged retreat of a Russian brigade near the eastern city of Bakhmut, which posed a threat of encirclement by Ukrainian forces.
Expressing his dissatisfaction, Prigozhin complained in an audio message released on Thursday that the situation on the western flanks was unfolding in the worst possible way, as territories previously liberated with great sacrifice were now being abandoned without much resistance by those responsible for defending them.
Adding fuel to the fire, earlier in the week, Prigozhin tarnished Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations by publicly criticizing the country’s top military brass, using explicit language to convey his discontent.
He accused the Ukrainians of tearing up the flanks in the Artemovsk (Bakhmut) direction and regrouping at Zaporizhzhia, suggesting that a counteroffensive was imminent.
In a scathing remark, he asserted that the victory celebrated on that day had not been earned even to the slightest degree.
Prigozhin’s comments also included a cryptic statement that piqued curiosity on social media.
He continued his long-standing complaint that Russia’s regular military was neglecting to provide sufficient ammunition to his troops, implying that while Wagner fighters were dying, the higher-ups were indecisive.
According to Prigozhin, shells were being hoarded in warehouses for unknown reasons, instead of being utilized to eliminate the enemy, resulting in the loss of Russian soldiers.
This raised the question of whom exactly Prigozhin was referring to as the “grandfather.”
It is worth noting that Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny often uses this term to mockingly refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who operates within an extremely tight security bubble.
Prigozhin, however, swiftly retracted his statement about the “grandfather” and clarified in a subsequent voice memo on Telegram that he might have been alluding to former Defense Minister Deputy Mikhail Mizintsev or Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
He also bizarrely mentioned pro-war blogger Nataliya Khim as a potential candidate.
To understand the context, it is important to recognize that Prigozhin’s political influence in Russia has grown as his Wagner private military company has seemingly been the only force capable of achieving tangible progress on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine’s protracted war of attrition.
Leveraging his social media presence, he has advocated for his objectives, including the acquisition of ammunition supplies.
However, alongside his successes, especially in the relentless conflict in Bakhmut, Prigozhin has reignited and intensified his feud with Russia’s military leadership.
Portraying himself as a competent and ruthless patriot, he has positioned himself in opposition to the perceived ineptitude of Russia’s military establishment.
Prigozhin has even taken jabs at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who enjoys close ties with Putin.
In a letter shared on social media, Prigozhin continued to assign blame to the military for the territorial losses near Bakhmut and challenged Shoigu to visit the battleground himself.
Nevertheless, some observers argue that Prigozhin’s online tantrums may be veering into open disloyalty.
The Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War commented on Twitter, stating that if the Kremlin fails to respond to Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin, it could undermine the existing norms within Putin’s system, which allow for competition among individuals for influence but not direct criticism of Putin.
Speculation then centers on whether Prigozhin is politically expendable, whether his outbursts are a sort of clever deception operation — or, more troublingly for Putin, whether the system of loyalty that keeps the Kremlin running smoothly is starting to break down.
“This isn’t meant to happen in Putin’s system,” said Cold War historian and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Sergey Radchenko in a recent Twitter thread.
“Putin’s system allows for minions to attack each other but never undermine the vertical. Prigozhin is crossing this line.
Either Putin responds and Prigozhin is toast or — if this doesn’t happen — a signal will be sent right through. A signal that the boss has been fatally weakened. And this is a system that does not respect weakness.”
That theory will be tested in the coming days, as the battles continue to rage around Bakhmut.