Yevgeny Prigozhin, the vitriolic and confrontational leader of the Wagner “Private Military Company”, has come to play a leading role in the bitter war of words between the country’s nationalists and armed forces. For months, he has been lobbing increasingly fiery rhetorical grenades at defence chief Sergei Shoigu’s Army and Ministry of Defence, which he accuses of incompetence and corruption, and blames for Russia’s floundering war effort.

Western pundits were agog when Prigozhin appeared to go so far as to criticise Putin, promising to remove his forces from the line and threatening Shoigu with execution. He even appeared to label Putin “grandpa” — a nickname made popular by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny — in a caustic video. Many wonder whether Wagner’s leader might attempt to seize control of the military leadership or even launch a coup. But recent developments suggest that this pantomime is about to end. Prigozhin’s power is to be curtailed — and there’s little he can do about it.

Prigozhin, an ex-convict known as “Putin’s chef”, has long been a master self-publicist. His Wagner Group, whose state connections were until recently officially denied, is an exquisitely branded enterprise housed in a glass office tower in St. Petersburg. The group’s social media presence is no less brazen. The online world of the Wagner “musicians”, as the organisation’s soldiers are known, is made up of thousands of gloomy TikTok videos displaying balaclava-wearing, skull-emblazoned troops rattling off machine gun rounds and rockets. Wagner musicians and their online fans soundtrack videos of war crimes and violent fighting with uber-macho hip hop beats and ceaseless nationalist and racist commentary about the Ukrainian enemy. In this world, morality and ethics seem to have been cast aside in favour of macabre destruction for its own sake.

Prigozhin channels this violence in selfie videos released to Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers, promising to wreak havoc against the state’s enemies and — if he doesn’t get the arms, troops, and control he wants — against the state itself. The threat of internecine violence is not rhetorical. Last week, Wagner forces in occupied Ukraine “arrested” a senior Russian Army officer who had purportedly ordered his forces to fire on Wagner positions. The officer’s interrogation was published on Prigozhin’s channel: he was brazenly baiting his nemesis. Wagner and the Army, it seemed, were at war.

The Russian state’s elite cliques and power blocs have long engaged in bitter power struggles to position themselves to reap financial rewards, curry favour with Vladimir Putin, and cement their own status. Typically, Putin has watched on from the sidelines while his underlings tear chunks out of one another. Eventually, the conflict ends in a moment of public political theatre as the losing “villain” is publicly shamed. Such has been Putin’s modus operandi since the arrest and televised trial of the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. Rarely does the show begin, however, before the outcome is determined.

Prigozhin, though, has pre-emptively brought the battle into the open. The nature of social media allows Prigozhin’s fans — and enemies — to participate in these conflicts in a way that would not have been possible two decades ago. Russia’s nationalists form a baying crowd that watches on and even — by liking, sharing, and commenting on materials — amplifies elite splits. On Grey Zone, a Russian Telegram channel associated with Wagner, any mention of Shoigu — Putin’s long-time ally — is received by users with raucous mockery: “What’s he smoking?”; “F*cking liar”; “What a clown!!” Meanwhile, the channel’s almost 500,000 followers pour adulation on the muzhiki — macho men — who have died fighting or committed acts of vandalism or criminality at the front. The overwhelmingly male and young audience of this sort of content thrives on violence and macho adulation.

Almost every man in the Wagner Group owes Prigozhin a personal debt. By offering prisoners a means to escape from jail, and the rural poor hefty salaries in return for service, he has cultivated a sense of obligation among his troops. And by releasing materials directly to the online public, he strives to build a broader base of public support, as well as to strengthen the loyalty of his acolytes, The strategy is not necessarily misguided: the Russian public delights in such pantomime political theatrics.

However, Prigozhin may be about to discover the limits of the support that can be built through memes and virality. Shoigu might be the online nemesis of Wagner followers, but Prigozhin himself barely features in their discussions. At best he will sometimes be referred to as muzhik, but he is often derided as vain, foolish, or arrogant. His followers prize manhood, masculinity, and violence more than any particular leaders: they are nihilists out for themselves, not the sort of citizens who will die for their leader’s cause.

This self-interested support has given Putin an easy means to drop the final curtain on Prigozhin’s theatrics. In a meeting last week, he confirmed that all frontline troops — including those attached to Prigozhin and Wagner — will be forced to sign a contract with the state by 1 July. “If there’s no contract with the state,” explained Putin, “there can be no social guarantees [for the troops].” In other words, the state is about to usurp Prigozhin’s sole hold over Wagner: the promise that he can provide money, support, and freedom to the men under his command.

Prigozhin has responded with total denial, declaring that “Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu”. Fellow nationalist leaders who have been critical of the MoD have accused him of “mutiny” for this refusal, and other elite powerbrokers have sided against him. While his troops are tied up at the front in Ukraine, sustaining enormous casualties and consuming vast resources as they do Putin’s dirty work, Prigozhin has no recourse. There is no hope of a mass mutiny without broader public support or the promise that Prigozhin can give his men something the state cannot. Simply put, neither Prigozhin’s soldiers nor the wider public have any reason to go into battle for him. If a power grab was ever on the cards, the chance is gone: Prigozhin is a busted flush.

In some senses, Prigozhin is an embodiment of the Putin era’s postmodern culture, in which reality is created, distorted, and destroyed momentarily by an arbitrary state. He stands for no ideas, cannot build elite coalitions, and alienates the general public. Through money, force of will, and outlandish PR, he has turned himself into a heavyweight — but his importance will likely diminish now the state has started to turn the screws. Distracted by the next scene in Russia’s pantomime of the absurd, sympathetic nationalists will move onto the next man to promise them an outlet for their frustration and rage. For now, Putin, the conductor of a cacophonous orchestra that plays far louder than Wagner’s “musicians” ever can, remains above the fray. If there have been questions raised about the Russian president’s ability to control the narrative of his war in Ukraine, he is showing that he remains — for now — in full control.

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