In Ukraine, the paramilitary group Wagner, which rages alongside the official army, is becoming more and more important in the field and in communication. Sometimes, to the point of contradicting Moscow and its polished propaganda. On Wednesday, the Wagner group announced that it had taken the town of Soledar, in eastern Ukraine, before being quickly contradicted by the Kremlin, which called on the Russians to “wait for official declarations”. “Military communication is always extremely controlled and a military press release is always a political press release with a chosen narrative,” says General Vincent Desportes, professor of strategy at Sciences Po and HEC.
But in Ukraine, Russian forces are fragmented. For its invasion, Moscow called on many forces: the regular army, the mobilized, the Chechen soldiers of Ramzan Kadyrov and the mercenaries of the Wagner group. And the latter, on the strength of their victories on the ground, also carved out the lion’s share of the media scene of the war. “The relative capacities of the Russian armed forces to obtain results on the ground have given way to mercenaries, in particular those of the Wagner group”, underlines Cyrille Bret, researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute. However, “the period of the war is always a period when competition at the top of Russian leadership reopens”.
Prigojine seeks to “establish its legitimacy”
Created in the Donbass in 2014, the Wagner group is under the command of Evguéni Prigojine. It was only last September that this businessman close to the Kremlin, nicknamed “Putin’s cook”, admitted to being at its head. And since then, Evguéni Prigojine has used the military victories of his mercenaries to make his voice heard. Considered the armed wing of Moscow, the paramilitary group nevertheless has slightly different objectives from those of the Russian government.
“The interests of the Kremlin and Wagner are not perfectly convergent. Vladimir Putin aims to show that he leads the war, that the fight is conducted according to his will. Evguéni Prigojine, he does not seek to win the war but to establish his legitimacy”, deciphers Vincent Desportes, author of Become a leader, published on January 4. “He is looking for visibility, credibility”, abounds Cyrille Bret.
“War of Presidency” or “War of Influence”
“He has an extremely modest professional background while he is in competition with political and military leaders who have a whole historic career covered with honor. He is looking for a notability that will make him the equal of ministers and regular military leaders”, deciphers the researcher at the Jacques-Delors Institute, who adds that between the Russian head of state and his “cook”, “everyone tries to pull the blanket to him”. For General Desportes, Evguéni Prigojine wants to present himself as “a major player” in order to become a “possible and presentable alternative to Vladimir Putin”.
The question of the succession of the Russian president, while rumors circulate about his health, is regularly mentioned in the media. Among the possible replacements are often cited the head of the Security Council of the Russian federal police, Nikolai Patrushev or Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense. “The end of Vladimir Putin’s power is not for tomorrow, it is one of the great characteristics of his career: he knew how to take power and keep it for two decades! “, tempers Cyrille Bret, who adds that” it is not a war for the presidency but a war of influence in the ruling circles “.
The promotion or the gag
“The first who will bring a real solution to the Russian difficulties in Ukraine will win the confidence of the head of state and, no doubt, a promotion,” says the researcher. Whether it is to attract the “consideration of the Russian leader”, as Cyrille Bret asserts, or to “take back power at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of lives on the ground”, as General Desportes assures us, Evguéni Prigojine does everything to highlight his military victories. On Tuesday, “Putin’s cook”, made a resounding statement in the media: “Ukrainian armed forces honorably defend the territory of Soledar. Claims of mass desertions from its ranks do not correspond to reality. A statement far removed from the way the Kremlin portrays Ukrainians as Nazis and cowards.
By affirming that the Ukrainian forces show “bravery”, Evguéni Prigojine “promotes himself because it shows that he has defeated enemies who have fought a lot”, underlines General Desportes. Still, these outbursts of com could end up annoying the Kremlin. “The multiplicity of speeches is a certain weakening for the central power”, estimates the one who teaches at Science Po and at HEC. The Russian power could decide to silence Wagner. Especially since the paramilitary group does not officially exist, Russia prohibiting private militias. “If they go too far, it is possible that only one communication channel will be authorized”, then sending Evguéni Prigojine into the shadows, concludes Cyrille Bret.