Wagner group boss ‘positioning himself’ for Putin takeover

The man who finances the notorious Wagner Group may be positioning himself as a potential challenger to Vladimir Putin ahead of Russia’s 2024 presidential election, analysts have said. Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has appeared to mimic Mr Putin’s highly choreographed public meetings, which usually show him seated at a desk, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Prigozhin’s Federal News Agency published an interview with Russian journalists from Russia Today, RIA Novosti and Federal News Agency on March 14, the ISW reported.

Its analysis noted: “This interview was noteworthy for its unique format – during the interview Prigozhin seemed to mimic the way that Russian President Vladimir Putin films his choreographed public meetings, either to mock Putin quietly or to suggest subtly that Prigozhin could become Russian president like Putin.”

ISW’s appraisal added that Prigozhin may seek to parody Putin’s cinematography style as part of a larger “trolling campaign” to attack the Kremlin or draw “tacit parallels” between Prigozhin and the office of the Russian presidency.

Prigozhin has previously indicated he could replace Putin.

On March 11, Prigozhin said he would run for the Ukrainian presidency in 2024.

It was a statement which a prominent Kremlin-linked Russian scholar argued implicitly promoted a narrative Prigozhin would run in Russia’s presidential election.

Prigozhin attacked Putin’s administration in January, suggesting some officials were traitors who wanted Russia to lose its war against Ukraine.

He has also questioned the Kremlin narrative that Russia is fighting Nazis in Ukraine.


John Lough, associate fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, said claims of Prigozhin positioning himself as a challenger to Putin is wild speculation.

He told the i newspaper: “Prigozhin is fighting to influence the conduct of the war, but this is very different from having political aspirations.”

Dr Martin Smith, senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said Mr Prigozhin was looking to wield power from behind the scenes in the event of Putin’s downfall.

He told the same publication: “I think it unlikely that Prigozhin will mount a formal challenge for the Russian presidency.”

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“Rather, he is manoeuvring himself into the strongest possible position to wield power and influence from behind the scenes if President Putin falls, or his regime becomes increasingly weakened by continuing military failure in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that unless his country wins a drawn-out battle in the key eastern city of Bakhmut, Russia could begin building international support for a deal which could require Kyiv to make unacceptable compromises.

Mr Zelensky also invited his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to visit Ukraine, saying they haven’t been in contact since the war began.

He told reporters: “We are ready to see him here. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning was asked whether Xi would accept an invitation from Zelensky or whether one had been officially extended.

She told reporters she had no information to give. She insisted that Beijing maintains “communication with all parties concerned, including Ukraine“.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked whether a meeting between Xi and Zelenskyy would be useful to resolve the war, said Russian authorities “highly appreciate” China’s balanced position on the issue and “have no right to come up with any advice” on whether the two should meet.

Mr Peskov told reporters on Wednesday: “The Chinese leader himself decides the appropriateness of certain contacts.”

In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US supports talks between Mr Xi and Mr Zelensky.

Mr Xi’s visit to Russia last week raised the prospect Beijing might be ready to provide Moscow with the weapons and ammunition it needs to refill its depleted stockpile.

But the Chinese leader’s trip ended without any such announcement.

Days later, Putin announced he would be deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which neighbours Russia and pushes the Kremlin’s nuclear stockpile closer to NATO territory.

Mr Zelensky suggested Putin’s move was intended to distract from the lack of guarantees he received from China.

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