During his recent mutiny, Russian mercenary leader and leading imperialist mouthpiece Yevgeny Prigozhin questioned the Kremlin’s propaganda line to justify Russia's war on Ukraine. His critique follows an earlier pattern of illuminating statements by Russian ultra-nationalists about Putin's regime.
Known until recently only among Eastern Europe experts, Yevgeny Prigozhin (b. 1961), the head of the Kremlin-affiliated private military company Wagner Group, has become world famous. Prigozhin’s only one-day and unsuccessful but nonetheless spectacular violent show of force revealed the fragility of the Putin system. It abruptly showed that the Russian emperor has no clothes.
Prigozhin's other revelation
What has received less attention within the context of the Wagner Group’s armed uprising is Prigozhin’s questioning of the Kremlin’s justification for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Since February 2022, Putin and other Kremlin spokespeople have repeatedly claimed that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a preemptive and defensive war. Even some Western observers consider Putin’s claim that NATO is threatening Russia a legitimate argument.
In contrast, Prigozhin announced in a video message on June 23, shortly before the start of his “March for Justice” on Moscow:
“There was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of February 24 (2022, when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started). The (Russian) Defense Ministry is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there was an insane aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they, together with the entire NATO bloc, wanted to attack us. The ‘special operation’ was launched for completely different reasons.”
Prigozhin then attacked the Russian military leadership, who he said had been bent on a quick victory in Ukraine and subsequent promotions in Moscow:
“The war was not necessary for bringing back to our area de facto Russian citizens. Not for demilitarizing and de-nazifying Ukraine. The war was necessary for a star (on the epaulet of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu). (...) And secondly, the war was necessary for the oligarchs, it was necessary for that clan which today de facto rules Russia.”
Although Prigozhin here inflates secondary actors within the Russian leadership to influential decision-makers in Moscow, his statement was, in principle, correct. Putin’s escalation of the war against Ukraine in February 2022 had domestic rather than foreign political determinants.
In another provocative video message released a month earlier, Prigozhin already questioned a second key item of Kremlin propaganda. On May 23, he commented via Telegram about Russia’s alleged “denazification” of Ukraine: “We came in rowdily, walked with our boots all over Ukraine looking for Nazis. While we were looking for Nazis, we spoiled it with everyone we could (of the Ukrainian population).”
Such statements are not extraordinary by themselves, but they are unusual coming from a pivotal implementer of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The mercenary leader is effectively disavowing Moscow's official justifications for Russia’s aggression.
Paradoxically, this also touches on the reason for the deployment of Prigozhin's own Wagner Group – consisting of fighters who wage war for money or to shorten their prison sentences rather than for some larger aim.
As a major Russian imperialist actor, Prigozhin continues an older tradition of post-Soviet nationalist politicians with his attacks against Putin. Russian right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1946-2022) and warlord Igor Girkin (b. 1970), for example, had years earlier already attracted attention with similarly embarrassing statements for the Kremlin. Critics of Putin’s regime from the far right have repeatedly and publicly accused the Kremlin of lying.
On Sept. 13, 1999, a memorable incident occurred in Russia’s State Duma, later made public by Zhirinovsky. At that period of time, a series of terrorist attacks in Russia, attributed to Chechen terrorists, served as the Kremlin’s pretext to launch the Second Chechen War.
Moscow’s new war in the Caucasus was popular among the frightened Russian population. The Russian army’s mass-murderous campaign in the Chechen Republic provided an important impetus for the meteoric rise of the then-newly minted head of government and soon-to-be president, Vladimir Putin.
However, the blowing up of an apartment building in the southern Russian provincial city of Volgodonsk on Sept. 16, 1999 – allegedly by Caucasian terrorists, according to the Kremlin – occurred under bizarre circumstances.
Three days prior, the attack had already been announced at a State Duma meeting in Moscow. Apparently, there had been a lapse in the secret planning of the Volgodonsk building’s demolition and its subsequent political instrumentalization by the Federal Security Service (FSB). (Putin headed the FSB until he became prime minister in August 1999, after which his St. Petersburg henchman Nikolai Patrushev headed the domestic intelligence service).
In 2002, Zhirinovsky reported about this Sept. 13, 1999, incident inside the Russian parliament:
“The note was brought by someone from the secretariat (of the State Duma). Apparently, they called to warn the speaker about this turn of events (terrorist attack). (Then-State Duma Chairman Gennadiy) Seleznyov read us the news about the explosion, then we waited for the case in Volgodonsk to be reported on TV news.” But it happened only three days later, on Sept. 16, 1999.
Like Prigozhin in 2023, Zhirinovsky must have been aware of the explosive nature of his statement for the Putin regime. His assertion called into question the legitimacy, authority, and integrity of the then-still-new Russian president. Prigozhin’s video messages in recent months similarly undermined Putin’s rationale for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Nine years before Prigozhin’s and 12 years after Zhirinovsky’s, the notorious Russian paramilitary leader and so-called “defense minister” of Russia’s proxies in occupied Donetsk Oblast, Igor Girkin, had another revelation. His statement concerned a crucial period in Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Ever since the beginning of hostilities by Russian-backed proxies in Donbas in the spring of 2014, Kremlin propaganda – and some non-Russian journalists and experts – have been pushing the narrative that the main sources of armed conflict in the Donets Basin were not Russian foreign policies, but Ukrainian domestic politics.
However, in an interview for the Russian far-right newspaper Zavtra in November 2014, Girkin revealed: “I pulled the trigger for war. If our (armed) unit hadn’t crossed the border (from Russia to Ukraine), everything would have turned out the way it did in Kharkiv and Odesa.”
“Our unit gave the impetus for the war that is still going on today. We shuffled all the cards that were on the table. All of them!”
What is significant about Girkin’s admission is not only that he, as a leader of an irregular battalion and a Russian citizen, had no biographical or family ties to the Donets Basin. As a former Russian intelligence officer, he was in constant contact with Russian governmental bodies during his paramilitary advance in eastern Ukraine in April 2014.
As detailed in Jakob Hauter’s forthcoming book, “Russia’s Overlooked Invasion: The Causes of the 2014 Outbreak of War in Ukraine’s Donbas,” Girkin and his company acted as unofficial agents of the Russian government in its, at that time, still delegated inter-state war against Ukraine.
Like Zhirinovsky in 2002 and Prigozhin in 2023, Girkin contradicted a central Kremlin propaganda tenet in November 2014 by publicly assuming responsibility for having triggered the Russian-Ukrainian War seven months earlier.
Many ill-informed commentators around the world continue to claim that Russia merely intervened in August 2014 in an allegedly intra-Ukrainian armed conflict that had been ongoing for several months. That is despite Girkin having openly admitted that Russia had, with an irregular but Kremlin-directed unit, already invaded Ukraine in April 2014. His battalion was supervised by Russian state organs and started a covert Russian inter-state war in Ukraine’s Donets Basin.
The particular explosiveness of Zhirinovsky’s, Girkin’s, and Prigozhin's admissions is that none of these men are liberal Muscovites or Western critics of Putin.
Rather, the notorious men are known at home and abroad as aggressive Russian imperialists. In Prigozhin's case, there is the added fact that he is a creature of Putin. The Wagner boss, caterer, oligarch, etc., owes his illustrious career entirely to his Kremlin patron.
Given these and other memorable revelations by prominent Russian ultra-nationalists, some non-Russian discourses affirming Moscow’s narratives about the nature and drivers of Putin’s domestic and foreign policies are surprising.
In media, parliaments, ministries, universities, institutes, and political parties around the world, the Kremlin's apologetics of Russia’s military adventures continue to find naive takers to this day. That is despite many revealing admissions such as those of Zhirinovsky, Girkin, Prigozhin and other actors from inside Russia’s neo-imperialist political elite.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.